Fire Dog Lake blogger Ohio Barbarian posted this review of Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent (emphasis added).
Yes, I know this book was featured on the FDL Book Salon back in May. I didn’t read that live; only skimmed it after the comments were closed, and I probably wouldn’t have commented on it anyway, but when I saw Ghosts of Tom Joad, a Story of the #99Percent at my local public library, I thought I’d check it out.
I’m glad I did. It’s a great book and, in my ever so humble opinion, it is every bit as powerful as the classic John Steinbeck novel to which it refers.
Set in a fictional small town in Ohio, home of a shuttered glass factory and a shattered American Dream, the protagonist, Earl, is a high school football player who graduated around 1977. He’s not exactly a sympathetic character, at least not to me. He’s basically an ignorant jock who did as little school work as possible, then dropped out after he got hurt in the middle of dumb teenage jock roughhousing, couldn’t play anymore, and went to work in the same factory where his World War II vet grandpa and his Korean War vet dad had worked before him.
He starts out, at least, as the prototypical “small town small mind” my mother and then later myself always despised. By that I mean someone whose whole world is his little town, who never really wanted to go anywhere else, and was mostly incurious about the rest of the planet. Someone who just assumed if he didn’t get some miraculous football scholarship, he’d spend his life working at the factory, get married, and raise kids in the same little town just like his recent ancestors, and that was fine by him.
In other words, he’s who Nixon’s cabinet secretary Earl Butz was referring to when the latter said, “All the average American wants is cold beer in the fridge and a warm place to shit.”
Of course, being in a Rust Belt midwestern town, our Earl is laid off after just a few months, and quickly spirals down from one McJob to the next to Bullseye, a retail store clearly modeled by the author on Wal-Mart, to more McJobs to temp work to day labor to homelessness and despair.
Van Buren takes an interesting approach, making the whole story a series of flashbacks while Earl is riding on the city bus, which is sometimes real and sometimes metaphysical, or at least metaphorical.
I didn’t find most of the characters all that sympathetic or even likable, but that’s not necessary in order to empathize with them, at least not for me. Like Steinbeck did with The Grapes of Wrath 74 years ago, Van Buren creates a world where selfishness and greed on the part of a few has caused despair and sometimes sheer hopelessness on the part of the many, and he makes it real. I think it’s quite an accomplishment.
My favorite parts of the book are astute observations by various characters about the deliberate destruction of America’s social, economic, and even moral sustainability by the top 1% for fun and profit, and the often subconscious collusion they get from most of the rest of us because of how we’ve been told to think since birth. My very favorite is, “It ain’t about left and right anymore, it’s about up and down.” A close second is “This was no accident, no invisible hand…we changed from a place that made things…into a place that just makes deals. Making things creates jobs, and jobs create prosperity. Making deals just creates wealth for the dealers.”
Indeed. There’s more, much more, and the book is well-written and an easy read. I highly recommend it. In fact, it should be mandatory reading in public high schools and universities.
Note: Though I also write for the site Fire Dog Lake, I do not know the author of the review, and have never met him/her.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
The problems in America’s creaky infrastructure started Friday morning when Brian Howard, an FAA contractor, wandered into the radar facility in Aurora, Illinois that serves Chicago’s O’Hare airport, one of the busiest in the world. Howard, seen on surviellance video dragging a suitcase and can of gasoline that did not seem to alarm anyone, then set the center on fire in an apparent suicide attempt. Paramedics said a shirtless Howard was in the process of slicing his throat with a knife when they found him in the basement of the burning facility. The fire destroyed 23 of the center’s 29 computers.
The result was chaos: Massive flight delays and cancellations at one of the nation’s busiest airports could last for up to two weeks. On Sunday, more than 700 flights in and out Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport were canceled, bringing the number of scrubbed flights to 2,000 since Friday’s sabotage. Even as of Monday, three days after the attack, O’ Hare and nearby Midway Airport were running at only 60 percent capacity, mucking up air traffic across the United States and causing millions of dollars and lost revenues.
It was on Facebook
The attack did not take place without warning. “Take a hard look in the mirror, I have. And this is why I am about to take out ZAU (Chicago Air Route Traffic Control Center) and my life,” Howard wrote on Facebook. His account has since been taken down. The Facebook message was posted to Howard’s wall a half-hour after he entered the facility, from inside, and one of Howard’s relatives sent the message to local police.
The incident “is no terrorist act,” the Aurora police quickly announced to the media.
See Something, Do Nothing
So let’s sum up a bit while we’re all stuck here waiting for our flights:
The NSA, who monitors our social media to stop terrorism, misses this. A guy with access to an important radar facility states his intentions clearly and publicly online to take it out. That guy with critical access is just another contractor. Nobody working with the guy notices he seems to be slipping mentally, nobody sees something and says something. The guy then shows up at the facility dragging a suitcase and a can of gasoline, wanders into a sensitive area and proceeds to set a fire. Nobody seems to notice this for awhile. Whatever fire suppression equipment is in place to protect this vital infrastructure fails to save 23 of the 29 computers needed to control air traffic over America’s second-busiest airport, and repairs will take more than two weeks.
Well, I for one feel safer. ISIS (al Qaeda, Khorasan, the Legion of Doom) really doesn’t have to create massive, complex Bond-level plots. They need only sit back and allow insane American contractors to go about their business. In the spirit of America, we’ll roll up our sleeves and do it ourselves, darn it.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
One of the exceptional things about Post-Constitutional America is how instead of using the traditional tools of an autocracy– secret police, torture, mass round ups– the majority of Americans have given up their rights willfully, voluntarily, almost gleefully. The key tool used by government to have accomplished this is fear-mongering.
Fear is one of our most powerful emotions. It plays a very important evolutionary role after all; the first folks who learned to fear lions and tigers and bears tended to live longer than those who were slower learners. Fears from childhood about heights or spiders often stick with us forever. So using fear of terrorists and other bogeymen has proven to be the most effective tool of the world’s first voluntary national security state and its coalition partners in scariness.
The post-9/11 months are nothing but a master class in fear-mongering. Condoleezza Rice’s oft-quote statement about not wanting to wait for a mushroom cloud over America to be the smoking gun of terror is near-Bond villain level evil genius. The 2003 Iraq War was sold in large part on fear-mongering over fake nukes, fake biological weapons and a fake hunt for WMDS.
A few recent examples illustrate how the work continues. Because nothing is better to keep fear alive than a regular flow of refreshers (watch out behind you, a spider!).
The Australians have proven excellent students of the American model. After a single phone call from one purported jihadi in the Middle East to a purported jihadi in Sydney suggesting a random beheading would be a fine terror act, the Aussies kicked off the largest counterterrorism operation in Australian history, with full world-wide media coverage of course, all of which resulted in the arrest of one 22-year-old. Prime Minister Tony Abbott said it showed that “a knife, an iPhone and a victim” were the only ingredients needed for a terrorist attack.
B.S. Factor: Between 2009-2010 (last statistics located) 257 Australians were killed domestically, many with knives. None of those cases involved the largest manhunts in Australian history. Drunken dingos seem more a threat to citizens than terrorists, perhaps even with an iPhone and a knife for the dingo.
The British are loosely joining the coalition against ISIS in Iraq, based largely on the beheading video of a single Brit hostage (beheading videos of two American hostages have also been an effective fear-mongering tool in the United States recently.) Since most westerners do not visit the Arabic-language web sites where such videos widely appear, this form of fear- mongering requires the assistance of the main stream media, who appear more than happy to assist by re-running the videos in an endless loop.
B.S. Factor: In 2013, 6,193 Brits died abroad. Very few cases even made the news in a small way.
Back here in the U.S., higher-level encryption built directly into the new iPhone caused much concern among law enforcement, who will have a harder time mass-monitoring the communications of all Americans as they have freely done for the past decade or so. FBI Director James Comey at a news conference already focused on ISIS terror threats said “What concerns me about this is companies marketing something expressly to allow people to hold themselves beyond the law.” He cited specifically kidnapping cases, in which exploiting the contents of a seized phone could lead to finding a victim, and predicted there would be moments when parents would come to him “with tears in their eyes, look at me and say, ‘What do you mean you can’t’ ” decode the contents of a phone.
B.S. Factor: We could find no statistics on how often decoding the contents of a phone alone resolved a kidnapping case. We also note that even if the FBI or the NSA could not actually break the iPhone encryption, existing, working tools unaffected by encryption such as triangulation geolocating, standard GPS, cell tower tracking, Stingray intercepts, call logs, email logs, cloud contents, and web searches can provide a wealth of data remotely, without even the need to seize a physical phone.
OMG: Americans May Be Killed By Terrorists
Obviously the uber fear-mongering are the pervasive streams of warnings about “almost executed” terror plots inside America. Whether told “if you see something, say something” on a bus, strip searched in the airport or hearing about one pseudo-plot after another on the news, the meme is that danger lurks everywhere in the United States.
B.S. Factor: Since 9/11, as few as 16 Americans here in Das Homeland has been killed by terrorists, almost all fellow Americans. On the high end, some claim the death count is about 100, but that includes murders at abortion clinics not everyone would call terrorism as far as traditional government fear-mongering is concerned.
Maybe more terrifying than anything else, in America you are eight times more likely to be killed by a police officer than by a terrorist. That’s a broad average; it is higher if you are a young African-American male.
To be fair, fear-mongering in general, and fear-mongering over terrorism, have a much longer history of use by autocrats than what has been employed since 9/11. One national leader in fact said “The easiest way to gain control of a population is to carry out acts of terror. The public will clamor for such laws if their personal security is threatened.” That was Joseph Stalin.
So yes, there is indeed much to fear.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
On the Alan Colmes radio show we talked about some of the mistakes the U.S. has made in Iraq and Syria, and how the future of the region can only end in chaos.
We also discussed where ISIS came from, why the State Department went after me after writing We Meant Well, and what it really means to “rebuild” Iraq.
Listen to the full audio here.
The ISIS First Sergeant spat into the sand. “These new suicide bomber Western recruits just ain’t what they used to be. Shoot, I quit al Qaeda for ISIS just to get away from this amateur crap and here I am stepping in it again for ISIS.”
“Once upon a time,” said the grizzled veteran who will be played by Clint Eastwood if we can afford him in the movie version of this article, “you got some good people signing up for the suicide corps. Sure, they arrived at training here as pasty kids from the American suburbs, but they trained up right and blew up real nice. Made me proud. Now, look at this pack of maggots I’ve got to work with. Can’t even remember to wear their reflective safety belt over the damn dynamite-packed suicide vest.”
“After we put an ad on Craigslist specifically asking for Americans to join jihad as suicide bombers, I got like 4,000 emails overnight. Every one said the kid had just graduated with an English degree, had massive student loans and was willing to do anything as a start. Fair enough, but then the little twerps started asking about benefits and ‘work-life balance.’ Work-life balance, are you freaking kidding me? It says ‘suicide bomber’ right in the job description. Give me a break. I gotta admit though, when I mention the 72 virgins waiting for you in heaven after only one week at work, they do perk up. Does Google offer that?”
Still, the sergeant admitted, his challenges with the new recruits are hard to overcome.
“They do complain about everything. Until about three months ago, nobody ever asked me for whatever the hell sriracha sauce is to add to the rotten goat meat we serve. But yeah, our pita bread is gluten free, mainly because we have to make it out of sawdust since the American sanctions cut off most wheat imports. But the hilarious one is always ‘where can I charge my cell phone?’ Don’t these bozos even watch the news? Cell phones attract drones like rotten goat meat attracts flies, which, by the way, are another featured menu item here.”
But the worst is yet to come for the sergeant.
“I have a huge wash-out rate. And our basic training is only like four days long. Day One we practice writing wills, and they do OK. Day Two is when they sign over all their assets and as much of their parents’ money as they can. Again, no problem, as that’s just like the student loans they are familiar with. Day Three, the guys spend ten hours pushing the one button on our new model practice suicide vests over and over. A bunch fail at that, claiming in four years of college they never had to do any ‘manual labor.’ I tell them it’s like a video game controller, and that helps a few. The last day is the big wash-out. As a final exam the recruits have to swing across some monkey bars and jump through a ring of fire in black pajamas.”
“I personally think our modern, hi-tech suicide corps is past that kind of thing, but the mullahs love it, and we somehow always end up featuring it in the recruitment videos your American media plays over and over again for us. I can’t tell you how many times in the NCO mess I hear ‘well if it was good enough for us in the Taliban in the old days, it’s good enough for these kids now.’”
“You wanna know how hard this job really is? My most motivated class of recruits all turned out to be CIA agents, and I had to behead each one myself after some supply clerk ganked up the curved knife requisition order. And then when I finally do train some kid into a spit-shined suicide bomber, he’s never around long enough to mentor the next group. See how it sucks to be me?”
A spokesperson for the U.S. Air Force involved in the training of Americans to kill Muslims by remote control using drones described the scene above as “barbaric.”
You see, Ray just beat down, in court, Hillary Clinton, the State Department, and a small part of Post-Constitutional America.
Who is this Guy?
McGovern is a changed man. He started out in the Army, then he worked for the CIA from the Kennedy administration up through the first Bush presidency, preparing the president’s daily intel brief. He was a hell of a spy. McGovern began to see the evil of much of the government’s work, and has since become an outspoken critic of the intelligence world and an advocate for free speech. He speaks on behalf of people like Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.
Ray McGovern was put on the State Department’s Diplomatic Security BOLO list– Be On the Look Out– one of a series of proliferating government watch lists. What McGovern did to end up on Diplomatic Security’s dangerous persons list and how he got off the list are a tale of our era, Post-Constitutional America.
Offending the Queen
Ray’s offense was to turn his back on Hillary Clinton, literally.
In 2011, at George Washington University during a public event where Clinton was speaking, McGovern stood up and turned his back to the stage. He did not say a word, or otherwise disrupt anything. University cops grabbed McGovern in a headlock and by his arms and dragged him out of the auditorium by force, their actions directed from the side by a man whose name is redacted from public records. Photos (above) of the then-71 year old McGovern taken at the time of his arrest show the multiple bruises and contusions he suffered while being arrested. He was secured to a metal chair with two sets of handcuffs. McGovern was at first refused medical care for the bleeding caused by the handcuffs. It is easy to invoke the words thug, bully, goon.
The charges of disorderly conduct were dropped, McGovern was released and it was determined that he committed no crime.
But because he had spoken back to power, State’s Diplomatic Security printed up an actual wanted poster citing McGovern’s “considerable amount of political activism” and “significant notoriety in the national media.” Diplomatic Security warned agents should USE CAUTION (their emphasis) when stopping McGovern and conducting the required “field interview.” The poster itself was classified as Sensitive but Unclassified (SBU), one of the multitude of pseudo-secret categories created following 9/11.
Violations of the First and Fourth Amendments by State
Subjects of BOLO alerts are considered potential threats to the Secretary of State. Their whereabouts are typically tracked to see if they will be in proximity of the Secretary. If Diplomatic Security sees one of the subjects nearby, they detain and question them. Other government agencies and local police are always notified. The alert is a standing directive that the subject be stopped and seized in the absence of reasonable suspicion or probable cause that he is committing an offense. Stop him for being him. These directives slash across the Fourth Amendment’s prohibitions against unwarranted search and seizure, as well as the First Amendment’s right to free speech, as the stops typically occur around protests.
You Don’t Mess with Ray
Ray McGovern is not the kind of guy to be stopped and frisked based State Department retaliation for exercising his First Amendment rights in Post-Constitution America. He sued, and won.
The Partnership for Civil Justice Fund took up the case pro bono on Ray’s behalf, suing the State Department. They first had to file a Freedom of Information Act demand to even get ahold of the internal State Department justifications for the BOLO, learning that despite all charges having been dropped against McGovern and despite having determined that he engaged in no criminal activity, the Department of State went on to open an investigation into McGovern, including his political beliefs, activities, statements and associations.
The investigative report noted “McGovern does seem to have the capacity to capture a national audience – it is possible his former career with the CIA has the potential to make him ‘attractive’ to the media.” It also cited McGovern’s “political activism, primarily anti-war.” The investigation ran nearly seven months, and resulted in the BOLO.
With the documents that so clearly crossed the First Amendment now in hand, the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund went to court. They sought, and won, an injunction against the State Department to stop the Be On the Look-Out alert against McGovern, and to force State to pro-actively advise other law enforcement agencies that it no longer stands.
McGovern’s constitutional rights lawsuit against George Washington University, where his arrest during the Clinton speech took place, and the officers who assaulted and arrested him, is ongoing.
Watch Lists in Post-Constitutional America
McGovern’s case has many touch points to the general state of affairs of post-9/11 government watchlists, such as No-Fly.
The first is that it is anonymous interests, within a vast array of government agencies, that put you on some list. You may not know what you did to be “nominated,” and you may not even know you are on a list until you are denied boarding or stopped and frisked at a public event. Placement on some watchlist is done without regard to– and often in overt conflict with– your Constitutional rights. Placement on a list rarely has anything to do with having committed any actual crime; it is based on the government’s supposition that you are a potential threat, that you may commit a crime despite there being no evidence that you are planning one.
Once you are on one watchlist, your name proliferates onto other lists. Getting access to the information you need to fight back is not easy, and typically requires legal help and a Freedom of Information Act struggle just to get the information you need to go forward. The government will fight your efforts, and require you to go through a lengthy and potentially expensive court battle.
We’ll address the irony that the government uses taxpaying citizens’ money to defend itself when it violates the Constitutional rights of taxpaying citizens another time.
Donating to The Partnership for Civil Justice Fund
Persons wishing to donate to The Partnership for Civil Justice Fund may do so online. I have no affiliation with the organization and do not benefit in any way from donations.
Full Discloure: I do know and respect Ray McGovern, and was once the subject of a State Department Be On the Lookout Alert myself, following these remarks I made about Hillarly Clinton. I have been unable to ascertain the status of my own BOLO alert but believe it is no longer in force. The State Department refuses to disclose any information to me about my status.
The searches would often be destructive, and intended so. Some of the time the point was to seize incriminating “revolutionary” materials, many times the point was simply to harass and threaten people the Crown feared and wanted to send a message to. It was in direct response to such invasions of freedom that the Founders wrote in the Fourth Amendment “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated…”
Posse Comitatus Act
Fast-forward to 1878, in the Constitutional America Era, when, in the wake of the Civil War, the Posse Comitatus Act was passed into law. The Act limit the power of the federal government to use the armed forces of the United States to enforce state laws, though the general interpretation evolved to limit severely the use of federal troops for law enforcement purposes.
While both Bush and Obama weakened the Act to allow for troops to deploy (Bush) domestically and arrest civilians (Obama) in the wake of terrorist acts, the general idea remains intact. There are plenty of law enforcement agencies, local and federal, around to enforce the law. When the home town cops can’t handle it, the FBI can step in, not the military.
Old Rules Do Not Apply
Despite that clear background, it comes as little surprise that here in Post-Constitutional America, the old rules do not apply, even on a small scale.
Yet in perhaps a tiny but significant decision, an appeals court ruled federal authorities had shown “a profound lack of regard for the important limitations on the role of the military in our civilian society” when they allowed the U.S. Navy to scan the computers of every citizen in the state of Washington fishing for evidence, any evidence of any crime, that could be turned over to local cops. The court so wished to admonish the Navy’s Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) for overstepping regulations that have evolved from the Posse Comitatus Act that it took the unusually strong step of excluding the computer evidence in any new trial of a child pornographer. “The extraordinary nature of the surveillance here demonstrates a need to deter future violations,” said the ruling.
What happened? An NCIS investigator charged with online surveillance allegedly to protect naval facilities in Washington state, determined that his scope included electronic monitoring of the whole state and its entire civilian population. Since Navy families had kids, and/or because Navy personnel could be child pornographers, the NCIS argued extending the surveillance away from terrorism to scanning for kiddie porn had a legitimate military-related purpose. It is unclear if the employee acted on his own with no supervision, or acted under orders; neither is a good scenario.
The NCIS spook set loose in Washington state with a computer tool called RoundUp on the Gnutella peer-to-peer network known to be favored by child pornographers to exchange illegal images. Gnutella allows a direct connection between multiple personal computers in lieu of a single server, so that tracking down and eliminating the “source” of files is much more difficult. The RoundUp software (a similar product is called GridCop) identifies computers on a peer-to-peer network by their individual Internet Protocol (IP) addresses. Investigators then work backwards to determine which service provider (such as Verizon) hosted the IP address and subpoena the provider for the name and address of the account holder. Investigators can then apply for and execute a search warrant for the computer and arrest the owner.
Tech Point: RoundUp works by detecting known child porn files that have been identified in investigations based on cryptographic hash algorithms, or hash values, which are unique numeric identifiers generated based on the content of digital files. Duplicate files will usually have the same hash value even if users rename files.
The FBI and local cops are doing this kind of thing all the time; the big deal in this case is that the agency at work is the U.S. Navy, which, under Posse Comitatus, is not supposed to be involved in such law enforcement. That is the illegal part, and the part that raises serious questions in an already nasty Post-Constitutional environment about what parts of the body of law the federal government will follow, and which parts it will ignore. That is not how a democracy works.
More on the Specific Case
The short version is that after actively monitoring the entire state for well, whatever it could find, the NCIS found one alleged child pornographer.
NCIS gathered evidence, turned it over to local police, who obtained a warrant based on the Navy search to legally “reacquire” the evidence (see also parallel construction, where the NSA and DEA use a similar illegal process.) The owner of the computer was convicted of possessing and distributing child pornography, and is now serving an 18 year sentence at a federal prison. He appealed, claiming the evidence against him was obtained illegally, and the court threw the evidence out. The case will likely be retried. Without the actual evidence of child porn images, prosecutors have little to work with. The feds may appeal the decision. The convicted man remains in jail
Nobody likes child pornographers. As a parent, I wish every one of them would be fully, legally prosecuted and punished. But before you say “Well, NCIS did a bad thing, but in the end a child pornographer may be let off scot-free, which is worse” remember it was in fact the illegal acts of the NCIS that tainted the evidence and which themselves will see the guy walk if that is what happens. Bad law enforcement does not create good results. Walking all over the law to enforce it does little good for our society, and outright contempt for the law, as exhibited by NCIS, is evil in a society that once claimed to be a democratic example to others of the rule of law.
“Letting a criminal go free to deter national military investigation of civilians is worth it,” the judge in this case wrote. “[This] amounts to the military acting as a national police force to investigate civilian law violations by civilians.”
Deterrence may indeed be the order of the day. The NCIS case above surfaced only after the specific person convicted appealed, and had legal help smart enough to ask where the evidence against him came from. We know nothing about the extent of NCIS spying on civilians in Washington state, whether or not this is NCIS policy, and whether or not such spying, rogue or not, takes place in other states with military facilities. The NCIS employee at fault in Washington did say a colleague in Georgia was doing the same thing, so there is reason to wonder outside of just raw speculation. Those might have been good questions for the judges who decided the case, or the journalists who covered it, to ask.
As for the NCIS, a spokeswoman declined to talk about whether the service has undertaken similar wide searches for child pornography offenders in other states with a significant Navy presence, like Florida, Virginia or California.
Lastly, there are law enforcement agencies directly charged with hunting down child pornographers, armed with the same tools or better than NCIS. The FBI comes to mind. So where were they while one NCIS person was free-lancing an assault on the Posse Comitatus Act and the Fourth Amendment?
Tough times call for desperate acts…
Proving or disproving his allegations will be an uncertain thing. One thing that is certain is that people will claim he is nothing more than a disgruntled employee with an agenda. I don’t think so. Because once I was also there.
Who is Ray Maxwell?
Raymond Maxwell was Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, covering Libya. Soon after Ambassador Chris Stevens and others were killed in Benghazi, Maxwell says he participated in a secret Sunday session where Clinton aides Cheryl Mills and Jake Sullivan oversaw a document review with the aim to “pull out anything that might put anybody in the front office or the seventh floor in a bad light” (“Seventh floor” is slang for the Secretary of State.)
As the House Select Committee on Benghazi held its first hearing Wednesday, the focus was on the Secretary of State’s role in securing American embassies and consulates abroad. Maxwell did not testify, and may or may not be eventually called to speak publicly to the Committee, but his allegations loom in the background.
I’ve met Maxwell, talked with him, though he did not confide in me. When you join State, you serve whomever is in the White House and like me, Maxwell worked Reagan through Obama. “For any Foreign Service Officer, being at work is the essence of everything,” Maxwell told a reporter after he was ultimately pushed into an early retirement following State’s internal review of the Benghazi debacle. In 2013, Maxwell spoke to the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the House Oversight Committee, and kept quiet about the bombshell information. Maxwell impresses as a State Department archetype, dedicated to the insular institution, apolitical to the point of frustration to an outsider, but shocked when he found his loyalty was not returned.
Whistleblowers at State
He has revealed what he knows only two years after the fact. People will say he is out for revenge. But I don’t think so. As a State Department whistleblower who experienced how the Department treats such people, I was there, and there is not a place anyone readily wants to be.
My own whistleblowing seems minor compared to something that might alter the race for the presidency. With 22 years at State, I spent twelve months leading two Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Iraq. The staggering incompetence and waste of taxpayer money I saw, coupled with the near-complete lack of interest by the Department I found trying to “go through channels,” lead to me write a We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People book exposing it all. The response was devastating: my security clearance was pulled, my case was sent to the Department of Justice for prosecution, I was frog-marched out of my office and forbidden to enter any State Department facility, I was placed on a Secret Service watch list as a potential threat to Mrs. Clinton, the pension I earned over a long career was threatened and only after the intercession of some of the same lawyers now representing Edward Snowden was I “allowed” to retire. My case appeared in Glenn Greenwald’s column. All over a book that discussed history, and named no names.
Inside the Mind of a Whistleblower
For whistleblowers to go public, there is a calculus of pain and gain, and that takes time. You try to go through channels; Congressman Jason Chaffetz says Maxwell first told lawmakers his full story privately some time ago. Then you wait in hopes the information will come out without you, that someone else might speak up first, you hint at it hoping someone will take the bait, and instead see faux investigations and bleats about “it’s just politics” further bury it.
There was a two year gap between much of what I saw in Iraq and my public coming out. The same was true for Snowden and other whistleblowers. You don’t just wake up one morning and decide to turn your own life, and that of your family’s, upside down, risking financial ruin, public shaming and possibly jail time. It is a process, not an event. You have to wonder what your fate will be once the media grows bored with your story, how far your actions will follow you. Fear travels with you on your journey of conscience. In my case, I was ignorant of what would happen once I blew the whistle. Ray Maxwell examples to learn from. He likely calculated he needed to securely retire from State before taking Team Clinton head-on.
Why It Matters
Now of course much of this is politics, in all its forms, though non-political questions about Benghazi still exist, especially as America resumes war in Iraq with its largest embassy vulnerable. Politics still do matter, and are indeed inevitable, as the measure of candidates needs to be taken. Among other things, their view of whistleblowers is important.
Document reviews at State following some significant event are not unheard of; an office affected needs to recap how it got to where it is. Conducting such a review in secret, on a Sunday, with some of the Secretary’s most senior advisors personally overseeing things, is unheard of. The details of Maxwell’s story ring true, the place, the procedures. Checks of State Department entry and exit records and room use requests should establish the basic facts. Proving what happened at that document review will be much, much harder, and will focus in large part on Maxwell’s own credibility.
Who is Ray Maxwell?
Is Maxwell a disgruntled employee with an agenda? Possibly, but whistleblowers act on conscience, not revenge; the cost is too high for that, and in this day revenge is available much cheaper via a leak or as an unnamed source. Going public and disgruntlement often coincide but are not necessarily causal. You can be both bitter and a truth-teller. Knowing what the right thing to do is easier than summoning the courage and aligning one’s life to step up and do it.
I think Ray Maxwell is credible. I don’t think his timing suggests he is not. We’ll see, paraphrasing Clinton’s own words on Benghazi, if it really matters anymore, and what difference does it make.
My sincere thanks to the nice folks at the North American Independent Bookstore Association (NAIBA) for hosting me at their 2014 Fall Conference September 20 in Northern Virginia.
I was able to meet A LOT of independent bookstore owners, and am grateful for the time they gave me to talk about Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent.
Independent bookstores have been a big part of the success of my books, and I look forward to working with you all in the coming months.
My thanks also to the friendly people of Chesapeake and Hudson for helping me throughout the day to sign books.
I hope to see many of you again, either in your stores, here online or at next year’s NAIBA conference!
The people I am talking about in my book Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent seem illusive here on the East Coast; in New York, visiting the South Bronx, there are plenty of poor people. The sense in Midtown was that if they didn’t deserve to be poor, then, well, they were sort of naturally thrust into it as immigrants, as drug users, simply because they lived in a poor part of the city and it always would be. Kind of the natural ecology of the place.
In talking to people in New York the working class tends to appear as caricatures, like Joe the Plumber in interior America was to politicians, the people of Brigadoon for elections, who then fade after the candidates grab votes promising new jobs and manicured optimism for a working class that somehow still listens to them. It’s inconveniently convenient to walk among them every four years, like having to be nice at your in-laws’ house for a family gathering. Ok as long as it doesn’t drag on too long.
The View from Ground Zero
The story is different when I talk in Kansas, Kentucky or Ohio. People there nod their heads, and everyone has a story to add: the family that lost their home to the bank, the factory that closed down and the retail outlets that replaced the factory that closed down, one after another piling up like the late spring snow we had that week. People say “But I’ll take any job. I just want to work. I’m not too proud to get my hands dirty. I still know how to sweat, the good kind.”
I believe them all. But even if they’ll accept minimum wage, how far is a couple of dollars an hour throwing construction debris into a Dumpster going to get you? Better than nothing but not much better. You going to do ten hours of labor for the phone bill? Another ten for the groceries each week? Another 20 or 30 for a car payment? How many hours you going to work? How many can you work? Nobody can make a full living doing those jobs. You can’t raise a family on minimum wage. And you can’t build a nation on the working poor. It is a rough portrait of an American past and a tough vision to push into an American future.
But my goal isn’t to speak in broad terms; I want to understand what’s happening on an almost documentary level. So what stood out was the proliferation of a new, New Economy, one designed to prey on the fact that people who don’t deserve to be poor are now poor. There are whole industries that sprang up because poor people became a new market.
Pawn shops are an old business, but one that has grown alongside the working poor. In 1911, there were only 1,976 licensed pawnbrokers in the country. By 1988, there were 6,900 pawnshops in the U.S. (one for every two commercial banks) and in 2012 there were almost 14,000 pawnshops in operation throughout the United States.
Pawn shops are one thing, but there are newer predators on the ground. I ended up buying Kenny’s story for two cups of coffee. Kenny told me that he couldn’t qualify for a credit card, the middle class’ old way of borrowing money. Average people with cards carry monthly balances of almost $16,000 and that’s at 12 to 15 percent interest, so not a helluva lot different from payday loans. Just looks cleaner. Kenny told me about the trap of the rent-to-own stores, who let people without a credit card rent a TV or a washer and dryer until they paid back a lot more than the appliance is worth. It was more like time payments than rental as most people used to understand the word. By the time you owned the appliance, it was old, and with interest you dropped $450 on a $200 item. You needed something and there wasn’t any other way to get it.
Rent-to-Own is a big, big business. According to Broke, USA: From Pawnshops to Poverty, Inc. – How the Working Poor Became Big Business by Gary Rivlin, the largest rent-to-own operation, Rent-A-Center, reported three billion dollars in revenues in 2008. The bottom line has only gotten stronger for them since.
Kenny even said he’d tried to cash in on it for himself, working briefly for a collections agency. When folks could not pay, the debt got sold down the line. Some big bank wasn’t going to fuss over small change, so it sold the ownership of the debt to a big agency, who sold it to a smaller one like he worked for, a place that might see profit in getting 20 percent of a two hundred dollar collection. At those rent-to-own joints, customers have to sign tons of papers, all looking like they were written by a Keep Lawyers Employed committee, so that if you miss a payment the store takes back the whole appliance, not just the half they still own.
This scared the people renting, but actually the last thing that company wanted was to repo a two-year-old TV, so Kenny’s job was to knock on the door and try to get them to pay something, and at the same time see if they’d refinance at an even higher rate. Loan to pay a loan. That old TV was worth nothing to the rent-to-own store, but it was some kind of magic thing to some old lady. If she was a single mom, the TV was her babysitter — feed your sister after Wheel of Fortune, lights out after Idol — and she wasn’t going to give it up easy. When Kenny talked them into an even uglier refi deal that let them keep the TV, they’d usually thank him for helping them out. Sometimes, he said, moms without cash would offer what he called a couch payment, bed in return for a report to the boss of no one home. His last customer before he quit the job was a former soldier who owed for a bicycle he was renting/buying over time for his daughter’s ninth birthday. Kenny said to hell with it, he wasn’t going to repo a Barbie two-wheeler with pink streamers on the handlebars and reported it as No One Home in that part of America.
The Ohio town we were in was falling apart economically, but it still had its looks, to a point. This wasn’t the South Bronx. Old habits die hard. When middle class folks fall out of the middle class, they still tend to keep things neat and see that grass gets cut. But what was once maybe quaint was now just old and tired. Pretty soon I worry there’ll be no one home.
Historians of the Constitutional Era of the United States (1789-2001, RIP) will recall the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, the one that used to protect Americans against unreasonable and unwarranted searches.
The Supreme Court had generally held that searches required a warrant. That warrant could be issued only after law enforcement showed they had “probable cause.” That in turn had been defined by the Court to require a high standard of proof, “a fair probability that contraband or evidence of a crime will be found in a particular place.”
The basic idea for more or less over 200 years: unless the government has a good, legal reason to look into your business, it couldn’t. As communications changed, the Fourth evolved to assert extend those same rights of privacy to phone calls, emails and texts, the same rules applying there as to physical searches.
That was Then
It was a good run. The Bill of Rights was designed to protect the people from their government. If the First Amendment’s right to speak out publicly was the people’s wall of security, then the Fourth Amendment’s right to privacy was its buttress. It was once thought that the government should neither be able to stop citizens from speaking nor peer into their lives. Folks, as our president now refers to us, should not have to fear the Knock on the Door in either their homes or The Homeland writ large.
In Post-Constitutional America (2001-Present), the government has taken a bloody box cutter to the original copy of the Constitution and thrown the Fourth Amendment in the garbage. The NSA revelations of Edward Snowden are, in that sense, not just a shock to the conscience but to the concept of privacy itself: Our government spies on us. All of us. Without suspicion. Without warrants. Without probable cause. Without restraint.
The government also invades our privacy in multiple other ways, all built around end-runs of the Fourth Amendment, clever wordplay, legal hacks and simple twisting of words. Thus you get illegally obtained information recycled into material usable in court via what is called parallel construction. You have the creation of “Constitution Free” zones at the U.S. border. The Department of Justice created a Post-Constitutional interpretation of the Fourth Amendment that allows it to access millions of records of Americans using only subpoenas, not search warrants, to grab folks’ emails by searching one web server instead of millions of individual homes. Under a twist of an old “privacy law,” doctors disclose your medical records to the NSA without your permission or knowledge. SWAT raids by local police designed to break into African-American businesses on harassment expeditions are also now OK.
The Center of It All: Executive Order 12333
The most egregious example of such word-twisting and sleazy legal manipulations to morph illegal government spying under the Fourth Amendment into topsy-turvy quasi-legal spying is the use of Executive Order 12333, E.O. 12333, what the spooks call “twelve triple three.” The Order dates from 1981, signed by Ronald Reagan to buff up what his predecessors limited in response to overzealous law enforcement activities. The Gipper would be mighty proud that his perhaps most lasting accomplishment was legalizing surveillance of every American citizen.
Back to today. Despite all the secret FISA court decisions and as yet uncovered legal memos, most collection of U.S. domestic communications and data is done under E.O. 12333, section 2.3 paragraph C.
Specifically, the one sentence that the government believes allows them to bypass the Fourth Amendment says the intelligence community can “collect, retain, or disseminate information concerning United States persons” if that information is “obtained in the course of a lawful foreign intelligence, counterintelligence, international narcotics or international terrorism investigation.”
So, the work-around for the Fourth Amendment is as follows: NSA collects massive amounts of data on foreigners, often by hoovering up every fragment of electronic stuff flowing around the U.S. it can. So, while purportedly looking for a single terrorist email enroute to Yemen (“the needle”), the NSA collects every single email from Google, Yahoo and Microsoft (“the haystack.”) Thus, any American’s emails caught in that net are considered to have been collected “incidentally” to the goal of finding that one terrorist email. The NSA claims that the Executive Order thus makes its mass-scale violations of the Fourth Amendment legal.
Oh and hey reformers: Executive Orders by one president stay in force until another president changes or negates them. We could have one at work today written by George Washington. What that also means is that Congress, should they regain consciousness, can’t change an E.O. Congress could in theory pass a law making the contents of an E.O. invalid, but that presumes someone in Congress knows the order exists and what it says. Many E.O.’s are classified and if they are not, such as 12333, the legal documents behind them and FISA interpretations of them, likely are.
Again, as a historical note, executive orders– basically dictates from the president– once did not trump the Constitution. However, in Post-Constitutional America, they do.
As for this realization we have come upon, E.O. 12333, well, we’re all behind the curve. Edward Snowden, while still at NSA, wrote a now-famous email to the spy agency’s legal advisor, asking specifically whether an Executive Order has more legal force than an actual law passed by Congress, or indeed the Constitutional itself. The NSA’s answer was a bit convoluted, but said in a pinch the Constitution wins (wink wink), even while acting as if the opposite is true.
As General Michael Hayden, then head of the NSA, said in a blistering blast of Newspeak, “I am convinced that we are lawful because what it is we’re doing is reasonable.”
Ask Obama This Question
So let’s make it simple: Journalists with access to the president, ask this question directly: Why is E.O. 12333 being used today, interpreted by the FISA court or any other means, stating that the NSA’s surveillance of U.S. citizens is “reasonable,” and thus no warrant is required for the surveillance to continue and remain constitutional under the Fourth Amendment?
Of course getting an answer out of Obama will not happen. After all, he is the Constitutional law professor who studied the document the same way a burglar learns about an alarm system. TO BREAK IT BETTER.
BONUS: The stuff above is real amateur-level writing on E.O. 12333. When you are ready to dig in deep, get over to Marcy Wheeler’s blog. She is the smartest person working in journalism today on the subject. My debt to her is hereby acknowledged.
As Earl takes an endless bus ride around his hometown of Reeve, Ohio, we witness the downwardly spiraling events of his life as he tries to make sense of how a boom town went bust. It’s the twenty-first century, and the factory that founded and funded this Rust Belt town is gone, taking with it the livelihood and lives of hardworking and hard-drinking men like Earl and his father before him. Men who were duped into bartering their dreams of glory for what would turn out to be the empty promise of a steady wage.
In a device that could well be employed in a Beckett drama, Earl’s mythical bus teems with a constant parade of unearthly visitors from his past—family, friends, and fellow downsized derelicts who, in their unreal way, convey the painful reality that erodes society when the American dream turns into a nightmare. A seasoned State Department diplomat, stalwart Iraq War whistleblower, and author of We Meant Well (2011), Van Buren turns his keen eye to the shameful treatment of the nation’s unemployed and homeless.
More reviews for Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent
BREAKING: According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the rich are getting richer while the poor in America continue to get poorer. And the government is contributing to all this.
You are Poorer Now than Before
Here’s the story from the CBO:
– Between 1979 and 2007, income grew by 275 percent for the top one percent of households, compared to only 18 percent for the bottom twenty percent of us.
– In 2007, federal taxes and transfers reduced the dispersion of income by 20 percent. The share of transfer payments to the lowest-income households declined. “The equalizing effect of federal taxes was smaller” in 2007 than in 1979, as “the composition of federal revenues shifted away from progressive income taxes to less-progressive payroll taxes,” thus doing less to reduce the concentration of income, the CBO said.
– The most affluent fifth of the population received 53 percent of after-tax household income in 2007, up from 43 percent in 1979. In other words, the after-tax income of the most affluent fifth exceeded the income of the other four-fifths of the population.
You can read the full Congressional Budget Office report online.
Shut Up Serfs
Just to make sure the point is clear, the top ten percent of wealth holders own roughly 70 percent of everything in the United States. The bottom half of us have roughly five percent, and falling, because…
The Great Recession of 2008 stripped swaths of the middle class of their most valuable asset. Some five million homes were lost to foreclosure between 2008 and 2013. 8.2 million more foreclosure starts took place in that same time period. Another three million homes in the next three or four years will face foreclosure.
The value of those homes and their real estate migrated into the hands of those who controlled the banks. Many homeowners were turned into renters, shoving more money upward to those who controlled the property. America’s the top earners’ wealth grew even as those responsible for the collapse were never punished and the companies involved received federal bail-out money to cover losses, being too big to fail. In a neat closing of the circle, the money came from taxes paid in part by those destroyed in the Recession.
This was one of the largest single redistributions of wealth in American, perhaps world, history. Cool– you were around to witness history in the making.
The mathematical measure of wealth-inequality is called “Gini,” and the higher it is, the more extreme a nation’s wealth-inequality.
The Gini for the U.S. is 85; Canada, 72; and Bangladesh, 64. Nations more unequal than the U.S. include Kazakhstan at 86 and the Ukraine at 90. The African continent tips in at just under 85.
Odd company for the “exceptional nation.”
Serfs All, or at Least 99% of Us
Thanks for reading this. I hope it distracted you briefly from the daily hunger pangs you face. If you don’t complain, we’ll allow you 30 minutes of TV tonight. Now back to work serf.
Meanwhile, 71 percent of Americans now support airstrikes in Iraq, and 65 percent in Syria.
Secretary of State John Kerry said that the formation of a new Iraqi government was “a major milestone” for the country.
Kerry told reporters at the State Department that the government formed on Monday in Baghdad had “the potential to unite all of Iraq’s diverse communities for a strong Iraq, a united Iraq and give those communities a chance to build a future that all Iraqis desire.”
Kerry did not mention that divisive former Prime Minister Maliki, who was Washington’s man in Baghdad since 2006 tasked with uniting Iraq, stays on in the new government as Vice President. Kerry also did not mention that the job of uniting Iraq has been on various U.S.-supported Prime Ministers’ and other Iraqi officials’ to-do lists since 2003, never mind the eventual point of the nine year American Occupation and 4600 American deaths.
But Kerry did say the week’s events are a major milestone. That’s the same as the turning point so often mentioned before about Iraq, right? Let’s look back:
“This month will be a political turning point for Iraq,” Douglas Feith, July 2003
“We’ve reached another great turning point,” Bush, November 2003
“That toppling of Saddam Hussein… was a turning point for the Middle East,” Bush, March 2004
“Turning Point in Iraq,” The Nation, April 2004
“A turning point will come two weeks from today,” Bush, June 2004
“Marines Did a Good Job in Fallujah, a Battle That Might Prove a Turning Point,” Columnist Max Boot, July 2004
“Tomorrow the world will witness a turning point in the history of Iraq,” Bush, January 2005
“The Iraqi election of January 30, 2005… will turn out to have been a genuine turning point,” William Kristol, February 2005
“On January 30th in Iraq, the world witnessed … a major turning point,” Rumsfeld, February 2005
“I believe may be seen as a turning point in the war in Iraq and the war on terrorism.” Senator Joe Lieberman, December 2005
“The elections were the turning point. … 2005 was the turning point,” Cheney, December 2005
“2005 will be recorded as a turning point in the history of Iraq… and the history of freedom,” Bush, December 2005
“We believe this is a turning point for the Iraqi citizens, and it’s a new chapter in our partnership,” Bush, May 2006
“We have now reached a turning point in the struggle between freedom and terror,” Bush, May 2006
“This is a turning point for the Iraqi citizens.” Bush, August 2006
“When a key Republican senator comes home from Iraq and says the US has to re-think its strategy, is this a new turning point?” NBC Nightly News, October 2006
“Iraq: A Turning Point: Panel II: Reports from Iraq.” American Enterprise Institute, January 2007
“This Bush visit could well mark a key turning point in the war in Iraq and the war on terror,” Frederick W. Kagan, September 2007
“Bush Defends Iraq War in Speech… he touted the surge as a turning point in a war he acknowledged was faltering a year ago,” New York Times, March 2008
“The success of the surge in Iraq will go down in history as a turning point in the war against al-Qaeda,” The Telegraph, December 2008
“Iraq’s ‘Milestone’ Day Marred by Fatal Blast,” Washington Post, July 2009
“Iraq vote “an important milestone,” Obama, March 2010
“Iraq Withdrawal Signals New Phase, But War is Not Over,” ABC News, August 2010
“Why the Iraq milestone matters,” Foreign Policy, August 2010
“Iraq Milestone No Thanks to Obama,” McCain, September 2010
“Hails Iraq ‘milestone’ after power-sharing deal, ” Obama, November 2010
“Week’s event marks a major milestone for Iraq,” Council on Foreign Relations, March 2012
“National elections ‘important milestone’ for Iraq,” Ban Ki Moon, April 2014
“Iraq PM nomination ‘key milestone,’” Joe Biden, August 2014
Here I am on the Dutch television program “Nieuwsuur,” with former Republican Congressman Pete Hoekstra, discussing the futility of air strikes to resolve the Iraq/Syria/ISIS mess.
After a setup in Dutch by the anchor, and an Obama speech clip, the interview (about three minutes in) is in English.
Obama said a week ago he did not have a strategy to combat ISIS, and that now he does. He was right the first time.
The United States ignored ISIS for months. Then out of nowhere a complex situation morphed into a struggle to save the Yazidis from so-called genocide, requiring special forces and air strikes. The Yazidis disappeared from view, perhaps saved, certainly no longer needed as an emotional excuse to re-enter a war we had been told ended for America in 2011.
ISIS beheaded journalist James Foley’s and another tail wagged its dog as surveillance flights commenced over Syria. It was a year ago that Obama asked Congress to approve air strikes there. They didn’t, largely in reply to a war-weary public. With the the subsequent beheading of another American journalist, an attack is back on deck.
So finally action to dethrone Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, himself once accused of near-genocide by the United States? No. Now as we fight ISIS together, Assad has been rebranded. The issue of how action against ISIS will only strengthen Assad is set aside. Assad is supported by the Russians, whose interests in Syria are thus tacitly upheld by Washington even as a mini-Cold War rises in the Ukraine from the ashes of the last great struggle the United States claimed to have won.
In Libya, site of a much-trumpeted Obama-Clinton lite-war success once upon a time, Islamic militants took over the abandoned American embassy and published photos of themselves swimming in the mission’s pool.
The United States issued Maliki’s replacement the same to-do list the United States issued Maliki since 2006– unite Iraq, and make it snappy, even as more troops are sent in. The blind man in the dark search for moderate Sunnis in Iraq to create a political solution will likely work out as well as it has in Syria. Iran, who won the 2003-2011 Iraq War with the installation of a pro-Tehran Shia government in Baghdad, is holding on to its victory, now with United States air power on its side.
Only a few weeks ago the United States feared the Kurds might take advantage of the chaos in Iraq and declare themselves an independent nation. One strategy to forestall this was to choke off “illegal” Kurdish oil exports (on paper, Iraq’s oil profits are shared among Sunnis, Shias and Kurds, though the Shia government in Baghdad has not fairly divided the money.) In July, a court decision in Texas led to United States Marshals seizing $100 million worth of Kurdish crude. The Kurds are presently in such need of United States military help that they have shut up (for now) about independence. So, on August 25, the Texas court threw out the seizure order so as to allow the oil to be delivered. The Kurds also appear to have resumed direct oil sales to Israel. Independent sales weaken the central Baghdad government the United States claims to support, strengthen de facto Kurdish independence the United States does not want, and create a model for a someday autonomous Sunni state that learns to manipulate its own limited oil reserves.
Ahead is a United States-brokered linking of Iraqi Kurd fighters with Syrian Kurd fighters, aimed at ISIS. This is of great concern to NATO-ally Turkey, who fears a pan-national Kurdish state.
Lastly, there are all those weapons the United States continues to scatter into the conflict. The fact that many of the current air strikes into Iraq are aimed at our own military equipment previously given to the Iraqi Army might in itself give pause to sending over more stuff. The shoulder-fired anti-air missiles ISIS captured inside Syria to use against American warplanes may have been slipped into “moderate” Syrian hands by the CIA, or were just picked up on the open market as weapons flooded out in the post-Qaddafi chaos the United States midwifed in Libya.
Digging It Deeper
Grasping at expediency is not a policy. Shifting to the greater-evil-of-the-day is a downward spiral. Not being able to articulate an end-game is a poor start. Obama did not create all these problems, but he certainly has done his part to make them worse.
A canon of diplomacy is that nations act in their own self-interest. America is once again exceptional, as the Obama Doctrine for foreign policy reveals itself: There is no hole that can’t be dug deeper.
A critical part of America’s plan to resolve all issues left unresolved after nine years of war and occupation is to divide the indigenous Sunnis from the “foreign” Sunnis, i.e., ISIS, and “unite” Iraq.
As counter-insurgency theory teaches, bad guys can only thrive when they have local support, what Mao called the “water we swim in.”
There is a familiar ring to the plan.
Unity Plan, 2006
In 2006 the U.S. brokered the ascension (remember the purple fingers?) of a new Shia Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, hand-picked to unite Iraq. A bright, shining lie of a plan followed. The U.S., applying vast amounts of money, created the Sahwa, the Sons of Iraq, the Anbar Awakening, a loose grouping of Sunnis who agreed to break with al Qaeda in return for a promised place at the table in the New(er) Iraq. The “political space” for this would be created by a massive escalation of the American military effort, called by its the more marketable name, The Surge. In the end the Shia government in Baghdad ignored American entreaties to be inclusive, effectively ending the effort.
Unity Plan, 2014
And so to 2014. The U.S. brokered the ascension (no purple fingers needed this time for visuals) of a new Shia Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, hand-picked to unite Iraq. His play so far along these lines? Asking his military to stop bombing and shelling his own-citizen Sunni civilians.
Al-Abadi said on Saturday, after he held talks with travelin’ man U.S. Secretary of State Kerry in Baghdad, that he ordered his air force to halt strikes on civilian areas occupied by Iraqi citizens, albeit Sunnis. He also asked his Iraqi security forces to stop “the indiscriminate shelling” of civilian Sunni communities occupied by ISIS.
The hearts and minds moves by al-Abadi follow several incidents which may yet have an effect for indigenous Sunni feelings toward unity.
Senior Iraqi officials acknowledged in recent days that shelling by their armed forces has killed innocent civilians in the course of the battle against ISIS. Attacks on Sunni towns have been part of what many Sunnis call a pattern of sectarian bias by the Shiite-dominated security forces. Human Rights Watch reports one Iraqi government airstrike targeted a school near Tikrit housing displaced Sunni families fleeing ISIS. That strike killed at least 31 civilians, including 24 children. Human Rights Watch also reported earlier Iraqi government airstrikes, including six with the type of barrel bombs commonly used by Syrian leader Assad to kill his own people, had killed at least 75 civilians and wounded hundreds more in mainly Sunni areas.
(Despite the incessant playing of the ISIS beheading videos of three Westerners, no images of the dead Sunni children have made it to American media.)
Earlier this year the Iraqi Shia government also employed barrel bombs, U.S.-supplied Hellfire missiles as well as some of the 11 million rounds of ammunition the U.S. shipped in, against Sunni targets in Fallujah, itself the scene of some of the most intense U.S.-Sunni fighting during the previous Iraq War.
Government-backed Shia militias have also been kidnapping and killing Sunni civilians throughout Iraq’s Baghdad, Diyala, and Hilla provinces over the past five months. Human Rights Watch documented the killings of 61 Sunni men early this summer, and the killing of at least 48 Sunni men in March and April.
Memories are Long
Many Sunnis see their own government as more of a threat than any ISIS occupation, given the record of the past eight years of Shia control. The Sunnis are also aware that the Shia government purportedly now seeks some measure of unity only after it was prompted by the United States. The Sunnis most clearly do remember being abandoned by the U.S. and the Shia government after they last agreed to break with a foreign Sunni group, al Qaeda, in 2007. You have the watch, but we have the time, says an Iraqi expression.
Memories are long in the Middle East.
Any sane human being welcomes a decision to not bomb and shell civilians, particularly if it is actually carried out. However, in the broader strategic context of Iraq, especially vis-a-vis American claims that Sunni-Shia unity is the key to stability, one wonders how much of the statement by the new Iraqi prime minister is based on the need to throw another bone to Americans always ready to proclaim another short term success, even as they speed walk down the road to Hell.
Award-winning PBS documentary filmmaker and American icon Ken Burns, whose previous work on the Civil War, Jazz and Baseball has furthered the art of historical storytelling, admits now he just throws together whatever old black and white clips he turns up and calls it a day.
“Yeah, so what?” demanded the angry director. “What the hell have you ever accomplished on PBS? ‘Donating’ $800 for a logoed tote bag? I just got bored.”
Burns went on to describe his current creative process. “I have this way-too-serious film student intern, you know, all nose ring and gauges want to save some tribe or whatever. I send her off with a bus ticket to the Library of Congress and tell her to bring back about an hour of whatever black and white footage she can find laying around. It no longer matters to me if it’s rare stereoscopes of Rutherford Hayes, an Abe Lincoln sex tape or some stock footage of old-timey trains. Just fill the bag and get back to the studio pronto.”
“Did I tell you? The other day someone thought I was Dave Barry. I had to slap him down– ‘I’m Ken Freakin’ Burns’ dammit.’”
“Anyway, once I roll out of bed, I just splice all that crap together in whatever order it comes off the floor. If the whole thing doesn’t fill the hour, I just have PBS run it twice. I got this CD of Peruvian pan flute music I bought off the street as background music– no copyright fees to pay on that ’cause the musicians are illegals– so I make a few extra bucks. I call up my old pal Morgan Freeman, we do some blow, and then I have him just read random things off the web into a microphone and we call it narration. That guy is something else. He can make reading the list of ingredients off a box of Captain Crunch sound important. Sometimes I get the intern to give it all a title, sometimes I just label the shipping container ‘Blah Blah Blah: A History by Ken Burns’ and that’s that.”
“I used to do all this research, but now that’s about as appealing to me as eating aluminum foil. Plus PBS killed me with the pace. ‘Yeah Ken, keep it classy and really dig into the subject, explore, but hey man, we also need a new doc from you every other week. And no more cheating us on time. 57 minutes isn’t an hour.’”
“The sickest part is that those people soak it up. Everytime PBS runs one of my films, pledges go up like 187% compared to when they play one of those ‘Golden Oldies, Music of Yesteryear’ things. Those losers ought to try porn and see what that does to their donations.”
Burns ended the interview: “I hate myself.”
For if Iran is the 500 pound gorilla in the room with Iraq, it is the 800 pound monster in the Middle East. No real stability can be achieved without Iran. It is time for the president to go to Tehran.
Boots on the Ground
For all the talk about boots on the ground for America’s air offensive in Iraq and Syria, Obama ignored the ground truth: Iranian forces are already there. The Iranians also command enough attention in Baghdad to significantly enable or stall filling the cabinet positions of Defense and Interior (Maliki held both portfolios personally) that are key components of any sort of “inclusive” government. Tehran’s real advantage? Everyone in Iraq remembers it is the Iranians who never really withdrew after 2011.
The Iranians truly understand the cross-border nature of the Middle East. An Iran that works closely with America will yield some version of stability in Iraq, affect the war in Syria (Iran, through its many proxies, including Hezbollah, has supported Assad by fighting his Sunni rebel enemies, moderate and radical alike), perhaps reduce pressure on Israel, and could calm the entire region by acting less bellicose toward a less bellicose United States. This would enable the comprehensive actions needed in the Middle East to slam shut the doors the United States blew open in 2003. Obama’s Iraq plan has already failed in Libya, Yemen, and Somalia to produce any but the most fleeting “successes.” The Brits and Germans won’t fight in Syria, and Turkey is reluctant to go in deeper, weakening any talk of coalitions. As Obama becomes the fourth president in a row to order war in Iraq, a new solution is needed.
Obama Should Go to Tehran
There is little to lose. After the midterms, he will be a true lame duck. Candidates can run against his failure, or bask in his success. With a dramatic gesture, Obama can start the process of re-balancing the Middle East. Too many genies are out of the bottle to put things back where they were.
Tough realities will need to be acknowledged regarding nukes. Having watched America’s serial wars across the region, and the sort of odd deference shown to North Korea after it went nuclear, the Iranians will never back away completely. Tehran also watched closely what happened in Libya. Qaddafi gave up his nukes and ended up dead, while the Secretary of State laughed about it on TV. Obama cannot move forward without accepting that he cannot paint himself into a corner over Persian nukes. Israel has had the Bomb for a long time without creating a Middle East arms race. Let the Iranians stay comfortable, albeit in the threshold stage of nuclear weaponry.
To begin, follow the China model — set up the diplomatic machinery, create some fluid back channels, maybe try a cultural exchange or two. They don’t play ping-pong over there, but they are damn good at chess. Offer to bring Iran into the world system, slowly, and see if they don’t follow. Give the good guys in Tehran something to work with, something to go to their bosses with. Iran has reasons to play. Regional stability can benefit its own goals. Removal of sanctions can grow its economy, and allow it to sell oil in global markets. Calmer borders allow Iran to focus limited resources on domestic problems.
Change in Iran, like anywhere, has to come from within. Think China again. With prosperity comes a desire by the newly-rich to enjoy their money. They demand better education, more opportunities and a future for their kids. A repressive government yields to those demands for its own survival and before you know it, you’ve got iPads and McDonald’s. Despite some tough talk aimed at both sides’ domestic constituencies, America and China are trading partners, and have shared interests in regional stability. In a way, as China was to the Soviet Union, Iran can counter-balance undue Saudi influence on American actions. There will be friction, but it can be managed, what President Kennedy called during the Cold War the “precarious rules of the status quo.”
Islamic nationalism is a powerful force in the Middle East, and the defining mover of world events in our time. It is not going away. American attempts to create “good” governments failed in the Middle East. The new world order created a place for countries that are not a puppet of the United States, and not always an ally, but typically someone the nation can work with, maybe even influence occasionally. That’s statesmanship, and a chance at stability in the Middle East. Perhaps even a chance for a beleaguered and exhausted American president to finally earn his Nobel Peace Prize.
Following Obama’s address to the nation Wednesday, America’s psychiatrists and liquor stores stocked up on anti-depressants and massive amounts of alcohol. States allowing for legal marijuana report booming sales.
President Obama announced an expansion of the current war with Iraq (not to be confused with the previous war with Iraq he claimed to have ended in 2011) as well as a Cheney-like giddy eagerness to bomb Syria “just as soon as Congress wimps out and gets out of my way.” Despite their general glee about bombing any brown person anywhere anytime on the planet, many Americans are expected to complain of depression.
“I support 9/11 and all that, but really, another freaking war?” said one college undergrad waken for comment. “My neighbor’s cousin’s son has PTSD or STD or something from that last war I like saw online and so I plan to feel sad about this before the pre-game on Saturday.”
Psychiatrists take a more serious tone. “People will be eating Prozac and Cymbalta like candy,” said one doctor. I’m stocking up, not just for myself, but for the new patients I am expecting to flood in. I’ll be double-billing the insurance companies as usual, so I guess there is an upside. Also, 9/11.”
“Upside?” commented the owner of local store Booze-a-Palooza, We Don’t Card. “Hell, I’ve already booked a luxury cruise on the profits from this thing. You had the drinking games. Kids online were saying they took shots every time the president mentioned ‘moderate rebels’ or ‘degrade and destroy.’ I quietly trolled for a full water glass of bourbon to be drunk every time the idiot said ‘no boots on the ground.’ And of course depressed people are my bread and butter audience every day, so there’s also that. And 9/11. Never forget.”
Colorado state officials, congratulating themselves on the timing of legalizing marijuana, could not be happier. “The taxes on weed sales just funded our school systems through 2019, with an overflow of cash into the coffers to buy enough blow to near kill us all here at the office. Weed is for light weights, especially after this speech. Dude, 9/11. Don’t forget.”
When reached for comment at a Colorado medical marijuana dispensary, Obama was characteristically calm and cool about the issue.
“Americans understand our constant state of pointless war is necessary to, what is it this week Reggie? Right, to protect the country. Some may say by making this speech exactly one year after I said we’d bomb Syria to oust Assad only to now plan on bombing Syria in tacit support of Assad, and choosing 9/11 eve for the speech, I increased the weary nation’s sense of complete and devastating cynicism. Well, folks have got to understand that war means sacrifice. Hey, did you hear about this drinking game where every time I said ‘no boots on the ground’ people had to shotgun a water glass of bourbon? I told my speechwriters to throw that line in about a million times. I think the whole address went down better with the American people drunk off their ass when they heard it. Now, watch this drive.”
The Hillary Clinton not-a-campaign, located in Oprah’s guest house, declined comment on the entire everything, pending the outcome of polling to see what opinion the not-a-candidate should hold deeply.
Reached at his luxury villa in Riyadh, an ISIS spokesperson just laughed. “ISIS lacks the ability to strike directly into your Homeland– I mean, who even says words like ‘Homeland,’ seriously man, outside of Leni Riefenstahl and Fox anymore? Anyway, we can’t whack you infidels at home, so we rely on the American government to do the job for us. And I must say, they are superb. Declaring ISIS a direct threat to Americans in Iowa, man, that sent ISIS stock futures soaring. Making all Americans depressed over our successes and the needlessly dumb acts their government plans to take? Man, you can’t buy that kind of PR. I’d say I was happy as a pig in poop right now if I did not consider pigs filthy creatures under my religion. Oh heck, why not? This is a great day!”
For those who argued with the theory about a month ago that interceding in Iraq for “humanitarian purposes” to help the Yazidis was just a subterfuge to have the U.S. re-enter a messy war that supposedly ended for us in 2011, well, you were wrong.
It was. Enjoy that slippery slope.
This Means War
Just hours ahead of the president’s speech where he is expected to widen the current Iraq War, possibly expand the war into Syria, all the while pledging there will be “no American boots on the ground,” Secretary of State John Kerry got ahead of his boss when he raised the possibility U.S. troops could be committed to ground operations in Iraq in extreme circumstances, the first hedging by an Obama administration official on the president’s pledge that there will be no U.S. boots on the ground to battle the Islamic State.
Kerry made the comment during a news conference after a day of meeting with Iraqi officials.
While Kerry reiterated that Obama has indeed said that no U.S. combat troops would be deployed to fight the Islamic State in Iraq, he adding “unless, obviously, something very, very dramatic changes.”
No U.S. official has previously used those words in discussing the growing U.S. confrontation with the Islamic State.
Doomed to Repeat It
Just as a reminder of the last few weeks, here’s some history:
– From 2011 until early August, the U.S. was not involved overtly, militarily, in Iraq.
– In announcing U.S. airstrikes in Iraq in August, Obama said they would be limited to preventing Islamic State genocide of the Yazidi religious minority, a tasking quickly expanded to stopping the ISIS advance on the Kurdish capital of Irbil. Special Forces’ boots were on the ground.
– As Obama deployed upwards of 1000 American troops as “advisors” into Iraq, the air mission was widened into protecting them and the embassy.
– The Yazidi’s forgotten, the U.S. moved into providing close air support for Kurdish troops fighting,bombing near the Mosul Dam, being the air force for Iranians and Iranian-trained Shiite militia breaking the Islamic State siege of Amerli, and forces of whoever is fighting around the Haditha dam.
While in Baghdad, Kerry also said “Every single [Iraqi] leader I talked with today in the strongest terms possible affirmed that they had learned the lessons of the past years” and were determined “to move in a different direction from the direction of years past,” he said.
Ah, if only American leaders would do the same.
Agent Storm: My Life Inside al Qaeda and the CIA is a worthy read; if it was fiction it might be called “a good yarn.” The book is instead straight-up non-fiction, making it all the more interesting as a window into the world of modern espionage.
An Enthusiastic Muslim
The book is the “as told to” autobiography of Morten Storm. Storm grew up on the dark side of Denmark, a tough, a brawler, a street gang member who always looked for a fight and usually found one. He did some jail time, and lived on the outskirts of society, surviving well enough off Denmark’s generous social welfare system. Socially and spiritually adrift, he was a quick convert to Islam, driven into his new faith by a chance encounter with a library book on the life of The Prophet. The descriptions of the built-in camaraderie of the mosques shows their appeal to disenfranchised youth.
Storm quickly found a way to combine his street smarts with his new faith, gravitating into the growing European jihadi underground. He soon moved to the UK, taking up life in “Londonistan,” the slang term for England’s dark underbelly of Muslim immigrants. Like them, Storm felt marginalized, left out, looked down on and began moving in ever-more radical circles. Despite his over six foot height and bright red hair, he found himself well-accepted. An encounter with a fellow Muslim, who died almost in his arms, propelled Storm to Yemen in search of meaning for his own life. His devotion to Islamic studies and his tough attitude saw him befriended not just by his classmates, but soon by Anwar al-Awlaki himself. Storm takes on all sorts of courier missions for the cleric and becomes a member of his trusted inner circle.
Another chance event suddenly has Storm again reverse course. He falls in with Danish intelligence and Britain’s MI5/MI6 and becomes a double-agent. His second conversion is marked by a bacon sandwich and a beer with his new intel friends to seal the deal. He begins accepting money and taskings from both the British and the Danes.
Storm quickly becomes invaluable, exploiting his connections with al-Awlaki and apparently nearly every significant jihadi in Europe to the advantage of his handlers. He finally attracts the attention of the CIA, which dispatches case officers to work with him toward one goal: pinpoint the location of al-Awlaki so the Americans can assassinate him. Storm agrees and over a series of events, the American citizen cleric is indeed assassinated by an American drone (along with his 16 year old son, also a U.S. citizen.) The CIA, however, double-crosses Storm, denies him the $250,000 payment promised for his work and eventually drives the big Dane in from the cold. His last conversion is to go to the media with his tale, and leave the world of espionage behind.
Without a doubt the very best parts of the book expose a bit of intelligence tradecraft. Unlike what one sees in movies and reads in (fictional) spy books, “spying” is 90 percent working patiently with people, with just a little high-tech thrown in. The book portrays this accurately, showing the best spies are more like skilled psychiatrists than hardened killers. A few details of the recruitment process appear to have been left out, perhaps for security reasons, perhaps because of the unusual three-way sharing of Storm. In real life, case officers of the CIA (the KGB, the Danish security services, MI5/MI6…) spend a lot of time seeking out people (“agents”) who can be convinced to betray their organization or nation. Motives vary, and a smart case officer will pay close attention to what his/her agent really wants– money, adventure, sex, etc. We watch as Storm is cleverly manipulated with both money and the lure of adrenaline rushes, and as his failed fervor for Islam and desire to provide for his family is worked against him.
Of equal interest are the contrasts drawn among the three services involved in handling Storm. The Danes are friendly, clubby, out for a good time even as they subtly draw Storm in and play him off against the Brits and the Yanks. The British impress with their professionalism and appeal to Storm’s sense of adventure, setting him up for sessions in arctic survival with an ex-Royal Marine and shooting lessons with an SAS man.
Then there is the CIA. Storm saves the Americans for his most unflattering portrayal, painting them as impatient, and ready to hand over obscene amounts of money when needed, only then to double-cross their “man” inside al Qaeda when needed. The CIA has another agent, secretly, alongside Storm and never even feigns to trust either of them. The CIA’s simplistic and crude handling is one of the main drivers behind Storm’s break with the intel world.
A Few Criticisms
A few criticisms mark an otherwise decent read. Storm is not shy about his own accomplishments, taking personal credit for a number of significant intelligence successes during the years he worked as a double-agent. One does wonder how accurate such an accounting is, suggesting as it does that the combined European and U.S. spy agencies had very few other people on the inside. Storm is also quite casual, almost dismissive, about how easy it was for him to gain the complete trust of hardened terrorists, despite his very recent infidel past and quick conversion to Islam. The bad guys never really put his allegiance to the test absent a few word games, leaving the question of if al Qaeda’s operational security is really so lame why the intel agencies did not have hundreds of inside men and women. Apparently one need only send the average red-haired European Viking into Yemen claiming he is a recent Muslim convert and bam! you have infiltrated the world of terror.
Storm’s own blustery self-image and the bit of unrealness noted aside, Agent Storm: My Life Inside al Qaeda and the CIA is a decent read for anyone watching the world of intelligence who also appreciates a good story.
Apple unveils their new iPhone today. Here’s your 2014 America in a nutshell:
Be poor, Black, Muslim or expressing a political opinion and the cops will run you off the sidewalk (if not taser or kill you.)
Wait overnight on the sidewalk as a good consumer to buy the new iPhone and the cops’ll watch over you like guardian angels.
Want to have Hillary Clinton show up at your next event? Kid’s birthday party? Political rally? It’s easy, as long as you have a lot of freaking money to spend.
A ‘found” document posted on Cryptome.org lays out the terms for Hillary to attend your event.
Right up front is Hillary’s most important term: a fee of $225,000. We are all familiar with the economic travails of the Clinton’s, and the fee is really important to Hillary’s integrity as a woman of the people and, need you need reminding, her role as a mother and soon-to-be grandmother.
The fee of course is just the start. Like with cell phone plans and cable TV, the up-front price is only a starting point. Hillary also requires you to pay for a roundtrip private jet for her, which must be a Gulfstream 450 or larger. Clinton’s “travel aide” flies separately (can’t get too familiar with the help you know) first class. Her two required advance staffers need you to pay for two business class tickets. On Team Hillary, some pigs are more equal than others.
You’ll shell out for ground transportation for the whole crew as well. Though the details are not specified, expect it to be more than SuperShuttle’s blue van.
Same for the hotel rooms you will pay for. Madame requires a Presidential Suite (ironic!) while her dear travel aide needs three adjoining rooms. The lowly advance people get only single rooms. Perhaps to make up for that, you will also pay a $500 fee for “incidentals,” apparently to include buying out the minibar at that rate, to the advance lead.
Everybody has to eat, and your toll to invite Hillary over also means you pay for everyone’s meals. You’re also responsible for their phone bills and cell phone costs.
Paranoid much? As host you will also pay $1000 for a court-reporter type person to transcript Hillary’s speech. The text is apparently only for her upcoming presidential library, as the terms sheet says they will not share a copy.
The Event Itself
What do you get for these costs? About 90 minutes of Hillary’s precious time, broken down by her rules:
– A 30 minute meet and greet, but no more than 100 people and no more than 50 photos total.
– A 20 minute speech.
– Big one here: a full hour of Q&A, moderated of course.
– Clinton does not/not have meals with you.
It is specified that the meet and greet take place close to the speech area, and that the three segments be continuous so as not to take any more of the lady’s time than really necessary. Clinton must approve the person who introduces her, and the moderator.
That moderator person is quite important. S/he will pose all questions, so that there will be no naughtiness from the audience.
A Rough Tally
So let’s put some numbers to all this. We’ll assume dearest Hils is departing from Washington DC for an event in Denver, with a one night stay. Here are some rough numbers based on web searches.
Private Jet $52,000, round-trip
First Class Ticket for Travel Aide, round-trip $800
Business Class Ticket, x 2, round-trip $1400
Limo Service Two days x two cars x $500/day $2000 (includes free wet bar!)
Travel Advance Incidentals $500
Meals, based on USG per diem rate, total $1860
Phone Bills, est. $250
Hotel, Best Suite, one night $756
Hotel, three adjoining rooms, one night $1145
Hotel, two singles x three days, one night $1654
Colorado State Tax on all of the above, est. 4.49% $12,947.58
Is it Worth It?
Understand that that $301,312.58 for 90 minutes of Hillary’s time is just an estimate; she might hit the minibar hard, even with the free wet bar in the limo. There are no specified charges for internet access, candy or paper clips and staplers. It is highly unlikely that she or her staff will be content with only the standard U.S. government per diem rates for their meals (Congresspersons traveled abroad on “official business” routinely get double per diem.)
On the other hand, you might be able to negotiate some deep discounts based on the amount of your purchases. For example, the hotel rates quoted above are “best web prices.” You could go through Expedia, or maybe even get the hotel to apply the U.S. Government Employee discount rates, given how Hillary will soon be president and all.
And you do get 90 full minutes of Clinton’s time. That all works out to about $3347.91 per minute. By comparison, a high-class hooker in Denver, according to the internet, runs about $425 (link NSFW) for the same time. You can get a professional clown for your kid’s birthday party for about $200, even less if you choose one of the really creepy ones. I could not find rates for clown hookers.
So you be the judge. And bring money.
The blog about the State Department I always wanted to be is Diplopundit. The anonymous writer manages to point out State’s dumbassery without resorting to terms like dumbassery, quite an accomplishment.
So I tip my hat to Diplopundit for pulling up the video below. It was made by the U.S. government with your tax dollars. The stated purpose of the video is to somehow encourage more students from Saudi Arabia to come to the U.S. for college. Education is a huge business now in America, and foreign students from places like Saudi pay top dollar. So while the goal to bring more of their money to the U.S. is a noble one, how this video helps is beyond me. Have a look.
Oh where oh where to begin? First question of course, is how could this possibly cause a Saudi to decide he wanted to throw his lot in with these people? What would be the key selling point? The gratuitous use of English to communicate with a foreign audience? The broken English of the Saudi student applicants? The hard to read subtitles? The nearly endless parade of stereotypes? The poncy Marilyn Monroe thing near the end? The Saudi guy dressed like a 1970s pimp? Yes, that would be the winner.
Anyway, enjoy the video and have a laugh. After all, you paid for it.
BONUS: We all do remember one of the last times the State Department went out of its way to get more Saudis to travel and study in the U.S., right? That was the Visa Express system that facilitated the travel for several of the 9/11 hijackers. And that episode didn’t even need its own cartoon advertisement.
Look at any list of popular books and you’ll see it obsessively packed with self-help manuals, Chicken Soup for Teens, How to Be a Better Whatever, books about having better sex, better relationships, better jobs. At the same time, we live in a world under attack from advertising that cleaves to a single theme: whatever you have now, it is not enough. You need to buy something new! to smell better, look better, have a bigger TV, a bigger penis, a faster car. Buy a Model II today! and see it overwhelmed by the new must-have features in the Model III, three months later. With all that need for personal and material improvement, it can be darn hard to just be… happy. So you get back on the circle and read some more self-help books.
Repeat. Want more? Desire less.
Morris Berman Writes to Us
Morris Berman, whose prescient work detailing the decline and literal deflation of the American economy forms much of the philosophical underpinning of my own upcoming book, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent, has written a new volume, Spinning Straw Into Gold: Straight Talk for Troubled Times.
Unlike his previous books, which focus on society and economy in decline, Spinning Straw is different. Maybe.
Actually, maybe not. The themes here are indeed about society, and economy, but zoomed out then into a very personal view. Berman reflects on his own life, with mention of a failed marriage, his decision to move to Mexico, all part of tracing his personal journey away from a world based on I Want into one where one’s happiness and contentment is divorced from more material things. But this is no hippie trip, and Berman’s book is no feel-good experience with a happy ending. In that sense, and it matters, Spinning Straw picks up the themes from his previous books and slaps them down inside you. In an interview, Berman spelled it out:
I was living in Washington, D.C. for eight years before I moved to Mexico, and I told myself I would be like the proverbial lotus in a cesspool. All that happened was that I became a dirty lotus. I discovered that the best way of escaping American values—values that were killing me—was to escape America. It was the smartest decision I ever made. Most of us don’t realize how the corporate-commercial-consumer-militarized-hi-tech-surveillance life has wrapped its tentacles around our throats, and is squeezing the life out of us. We merge with “our” narrative so as to have some measure of safety in our lives; but what if it’s a death-oriented narrative? (Usually it’s some version of the American Dream, which is the life of a hamster on a treadmill)… Life has a tragic dimension, and no amount of Oprah or Tony Robbins can change that. To hide from sadness—and one way or another, that’s what Americans struggle mightily to do—is to remain a child all your life. Most Americans have never grown up. Americans are probably the most superficial people on the planet. To dull your sadness with Prozac or cell phones or food or alcohol or TV or laptops is to suppress symptoms, and not live in reality. Reality is not always pleasant, but it does have one overriding advantage: It’s real.
In reading Spinning Straw, I was reminded of my chance encounter in old Kyoto with an elderly man who was one of the last makers of hand-crafted wooden buckets for use in a Japanese bath. He worked slowly, and seemed to make very little money, selling his product to mostly other elderly people. I asked him why he did what he did and he said “Because wooden buckets are good,” turning away from me. It was up to me to discard the simple truth– he did what he did because it was right– or learn from it. The old guy could care less what I thought, he had buckets to make. So it is with Spinning Gold; the author is not selling seats at a seminar or a CD collection of his happy talk; there are no “steps” or Five Most Important Things to Do Now. Indeed, you walk away with the feeling that while the author has much to say, if you’re too stupid to listen he could probably care less. There are buckets to make.
If the author was however forced into making some sort of list, it would be short. Slow down. Think more, purchase less. Look for meaning more than Wikipedia-ized facts. Enjoy the dance. The journey’s all we have until we get there, then that’s that. Hell, the whole book’s only 90 pages.
Those 90 pages are packed with stuff to think about. The need to break a cycle of what the author calls “stuckness,” the focus on elevating little things into big things where you end up screaming at a minimum wage worker because your coffee isn’t right or the Bubblicious is out of stock. There is the danger of buying (!) too deeply and quickly into a “narrative,” a way of life dictated to you where you falsely think you’re picking up safety and security but instead fall into a trap. Choosing competition over community isn’t like deciding caff or decaff, it is a philosophical “vector” that shoots you down a very different life path.
Blended into the pages are inklings of the “old” Berman. Obama’s seemingly overnight transformation from Hope and Change into a nightmare of drones and perpetual war is offered as an example of what happens when one doesn’t care about one’s soul. Power and influence require you to “inject poison into culture’s veins on a daily basis.” But if instead you follow the fairy tale of making straw into gold, you have a chance at a life that is full, meaningful and pleasantly finite– you can be happy and content once and for all. As Berman says, life is over faster than a blink, and then all you are is dead for a really long time.
You get it. The book is brief, the lessons long. In the time it took to read this review you could be well-stuck into Berman’s thoughts. Better to put this down and pick those up before another blink goes by.
A security researcher identified multiple “fake” cell phone towers around the United States, many near military bases, designed to intercept calls and texts without your knowledge, and to potentially inject spyware into your phone by defeating built-in encryption.
The researcher has located a number of towers; what he can’t figure out is who built them and who controls them.
The basics of the technology are pretty clear: your cell phone is always trying to electronically latch-on to three cell towers. Three means the network can triangulate your phone’s location, and pass you off from one set of towers to the next tower in line as you move around. The phone obviously looks for the strongest tower signal to get you the best reception, those bars. The fake towers, called Interceptors, jump into this dance and hijack your signal for whatever purpose the tower owner would like. The Interceptors then transparently pass your signal on to a real tower so you can complete your call, and you don’t know anything happened.
Because phones use various types of encryption, the Interceptors need to get around that. There are likely complex methods, but why not go old-school and save some time and money? The towers do that by dropping your modern-day 4G or 3G signal, and substituting a near-obsolete 2G signal, which is not encrypted. That is one way researchers can find the Interceptor towers, by identifying a phone using a 2G signal when it should be 4G or 3G.
Want more tech? Popular Science magazine has it:
Whether your phone uses Android or iOS, it also has a second operating system that runs on a part of the phone called a baseband processor. The baseband processor functions as a communications middleman between the phone’s main O.S. and the cell towers. And because chip manufacturers jealously guard details about the baseband O.S., it has been too challenging a target for garden-variety hackers.
But for governments or other entities able to afford a price tag of $100,000, high-quality interceptors are quite realistic. Some interceptors are limited, only able to passively listen to either outgoing or incoming calls. But full-featured devices like the VME Dominator, available only to government agencies, not only capture calls and texts, but actively control the phone, sending out spoof texts, for example. Edward Snowden revealed the NSA is capable of an over-the-air attack that tells the phone to fake a shut-down while leaving the microphone running, turning the seemingly deactivated phone into a bug. And various ethical hackers have demonstrated DIY interceptor projects that work well-enough for less than $3,000.
Those VME Dominators are quite a piece of electronics. In addition to ho-hum listening in, they allow for voice manipulation, up or down channel blocking, text intercept and modification, calling and sending texts on behalf of the user, and directional finding of a user. The VME Dominator, its manufacturer Meganet claims, “is far superior to passive systems.”
Police departments around the U.S. have been using such tech to spy on, well, everyone with a cell phone. The cops’ devices are called Stingrays, and work off the same 4G-to-2G exploit mentioned above.
The tech does not require a phone’s GPS and was first deployed against America’s enemies in Iraq. Then it came home.
Also available is a version of Stingray that can be worn by a single person like a vest.
Because the antiquated 2G network in the U.S. is due to be retired soon, the Department of Homeland Security is issuing grants to local police agencies to obtain a new, state-of-the-art cell phone tracking system called Hailstorm. The key advantage is Hailstorm will work natively with 4G, rendering current layperson detection methods ineffectual.
Who is Spying On You Now?
The technology is important, but not the real story here. The real question is: who owns those Interceptor towers and who is spying on you?
– The NSA? A likely culprit. While post-Patriot Act the NSA can simply dial up your cell provider (Verizon, ATT, etc.) and ask for whatever they want, the towers might be left-overs from an earlier time. The towers do have the advantage of being able to inject spyware. But their biggest advantage is that they bypass the carriers, which keeps the spying much more secret. It also keeps the spying outside any future court systems that might seek to rein in the spooks.
– Local law enforcement? Maybe, but the national placement of the towers, and their proximity in many cases to military bases, smells Federal.
– DEA or FBI? Also likely. Towers could be established in specific locations for specific investigations, hence the less-than-nationwide coverage. One tower was found at a Vegas casino. While the NSA shares information with both the DEA and the FBI, what self-respecting law enforcement agency wouldn’t want its own independent capability?
– The military? Another maybe. The military might want the towers to keep a personal eye on the area around their bases, or to spy on their own personnel to ensure they are not on the phone to Moscow or Beijing.
– Private business? Unlikely, but the towers could be testbeds for new technology to be sold to the government, or perhaps some sort of industrial spying.
The mystery remains!
This is not satire, and a cop did get convicted for a killing. Only it is not what you think, and it shows the reality of how we value life, and the law, now in America.
A Boulder, Colorado police officer convicted of killing a beloved, semi-tame bull elk in an upscale residential neighborhood was sentenced for the death.
The officer, Sam Carter, 37, was on duty when he killed the elk, known as Big Boy, while it grazed under a tree. He did not report firing his weapon to the police department, and then said the animal had been injured before he arrived on the scene and needed to be put down. Prosecutors said text messages between Carter and another police officer showed that the shooting was planned. The elk was a fixture in the neighborhood, and its killing inspired marches, vigils, a tribute song and plans for a memorial.
Carter was convicted of nine charges, including three felonies: forgery, tampering with evidence and trying to influence a public official, all of which carried a sentence of up to six years in jail. Instead, despite the premeditated killing, the lying and the evidence tampering, Carter received only probation, and no jail time. His accomplice copped a plea for the same crimes, resulting in all of sixty days of home detention and probation. Even those convictions took twenty months to take place. Both cops did lose their jobs over it all.
Meanwhile, in places like the spotlighted Ferguson, Missouri, but actually across the United States, cops are killing citizens. Marches, vigils, tribute songs and plans for a memorial are a regular occurrence among the largely African-American communities where the killings take place. Sadly, the whole thing has taken on the appearance of a set-piece: a young African-American man is stopped by police for a minor offense (or no apparent offense.) In the course of the stop, he either “resists,” tries to “flee,” “appeared to have a weapon (when there was none), or “went for the officer’s weapon.”
In one recent case, the cops claim a young African-American man shot himself while handcuffed, all inside a police car. The cops responding to reports of a fight had stopped the victim, age 22, who was walking with a friend. Deputies found marijuana in the man’s pocket and that was that. The investigation into that death is ongoing, now several months in. The autopsy showed the fatal bullet entered the young man from the front, though his hands were cuffed behind him.
It is not just violence against African-American males; an Oklahoma cop has been charged with sixteen counts including first-degree rape and sexual battery after being accused of assaulting at least eight African-American women while on patrol.
In the generic cases, once detained, the young African-American man loses the status of human and becomes a dangerous suspect. He then is eligible to be beaten, tased or more and more often, just killed in the street. If no one was around to videotape the incident, it usually goes away, played for shock value that night on the local news, with a perfunctory police denial and an empty promise to investigate.
After a video surfaces, the media may pick up the story again for awhile (can’t pass up a lede that includes a violent video) and that long-delayed investigation is again mentioned. It tends to take a long, long time to complete, typically about as long as the public’s attention span, and the officer is usually found to have acted “appropriately.” The community is urged to move on, and it does, more cynical, more full of hate, but more on the road to reluctant acceptance that cops these days can pretty much do what they want, as long as the victim is a young African-American and not a beloved elk for God’s sake.
Nydia Tisdale is a citizen journalist in Georgia. She does not get paid for her work, but instead sees it as a civic duty to record politicians and the political process, and then upload those videos to YouTube. What she does is in large part what democracy is all about– involved, informed citizens exercising their rights under the First Amendment.
Not in Georgia.
Tisdale’s day began with a speech by state Insurance Commissioner Ralph Hudgens, who in his talk described the debate performance of a Democratic rival as lousy enough that “I thought I was going to absolutely puke.”
The crowd was laughing at the insult when Hudgens interrupted, looking down from the podium at Tisdale, seated near the state’s governor. Hudgens said “I don’t know why you’re videotaping.” Another pol, a local attorney and former GOP chairman, and one of the event’s organizers, demanded Tisdale stop videotaping. She refused. The cops were called to arrest and remove her.
Yes, it got worse.
At some point, with Tisdale loudly stating her rights were being violated, one of the arresting cops allegedly pressed his groin into Tisdale’s backside, bending her over a counter, because that’s how it’s done in Georgia. Tisdale would eventually be charged with trespassing, a misdemeanor, and obstructing an officer “by elbowing him in the right cheek area and kicking him in the right shin.”
Linda Clary Umberger, chairwoman of the Dawson County GOP, followed the citizen journalist and the officer to an outbuilding. “I watched as a woman was bent over the counter on her face, with an officer over her,” Umberger said. “If I had been her, I would have elbowed him in the face, too. “I was so upset at how they handled it – I walked out.”
The state governor apparently sat in silence while the violation of civil rights took place in front of him. Because that’s how it’s done in Georgia.
“Let me be possibly politically incorrect here a second,” a later speaker, the state’s attorney general finally told the crowd. “If we stand for anything as a party, what are we afraid of with the lady having a camera, filming us? What are we saying here that shouldn’t be on film?
“What message are we sending? That because it’s private property, they shouldn’t be filming? What is the harm? Who’s the winner in the long run? Not a good move. The harm that this poses is far greater than her filming us. What are we hiding? If we are telling you why we are running and what we stand for, what are we hiding?”
Georgia still isn’t done harassing Tisdale.
Though she was released on bond, her camera, supposedly seized as “evidence,” remains locked up, because that’s how it’s done in Georgia. “I can’t work without it,” she said.
This is not Tisdale’s first time to run into unfair practices in Georgia. In 2012, the mayor of Cumming, Georgia, ejected Tisdale from an open city council meeting simply for videotaping the proceedings. A judge later signed an order laying a $12,000 fine on the city and mayor for violating the state’s open meetings law, never mind the Constitution of the United States, assuming that document still applies in Georgia.
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