America has entered its third great era: the post-constitutional one. In the first, in the colonial years, a unitary executive, the King of England, ruled without checks and balances, allowing no freedom of speech, due process, or privacy when it came to protecting his power.
In the second, the principles of the Enlightenment and an armed rebellion were used to push back the king’s abuses. The result was a new country and a new constitution with a Bill of Rights expressly meant to check the government’s power. Now, we are wading into the shallow waters of a third era, a time when that government is abandoning the basic ideas that saw our nation through centuries of challenges far more daunting than terrorism. Those ideas — enshrined in the Bill of Rights — are disarmingly concise. Think of them as the haiku of a genuine people’s government.
Deeper, darker waters lie ahead and we seem drawn down into them. For here there be monsters.
The Powers of a Police State Denied
America in its pre-constitutional days may seem eerily familiar even to casual readers of current events. We lived then under the control of a king. (Think now: the imperial presidency.) That king was a powerful, unitary executive who ruled at a distance. His goal was simple: to use his power over “his” American colonies to draw the maximum financial gain while suppressing any dissent that might endanger his control.
In those years, protest was dangerous. Speech could indeed make you the enemy of the government. Journalism could be a crime if you didn’t write in support of those in power. A citizen needed to watch what he said, for there were spies everywhere, including fellow colonists hoping for a few crumbs from the king’s table. Laws could be brutal and punishments swift as well as extra-judicial. In extreme cases, troops shot down those simply assembling to speak out.
Among the many offenses against liberty in pre-constitutional America, one pivotal event, the Stamp Act of 1765, stands out. To enforce the taxes imposed by the Act, the king’s men used “writs of assistance” that allowed them to burst into any home or business, with or without suspicion of wrongdoing. American privacy was violated and property ransacked, often simply as a warning of the king’s power. Some colonist was then undoubtedly the first American to mutter, “But if I have nothing to hide, why should I be afraid?” He soon learned that when a population is categorically treated as a potential enemy, everyone has something to hide if the government claims they do.
The Stamp Act and the flood of kingly offenses that followed created in those who founded the United States a profound suspicion of what an unchecked government could do, and a sense that power and freedom are not likely to coexist comfortably in a democracy. A balancing mechanism was required. In addition to the body of the Constitution outlining what the new nation’s government could do, needed was an accounting of what it could not do. The answer was the Bill of Rights.
The Bill’s preamble explained the matter this way: “…in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of [the government’s] powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added.” Thomas Jefferson commented separately, “[A] bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth.”
In other words, the Bill of Rights was written to make sure that the new government would not replicate the abuses of power of the old one. Each amendment spoke directly to a specific offense committed by the king. Their purpose collectively was to lay out what the government could never take away. Knowing first-hand the dangers of a police state and unchecked power, those who wrote the Constitution wanted to be clear: never again.
It needs to be said that those imperfect men were very much of their era. They were right about much, but desperately wrong about other things. They addressed “humanity,” but ignored the rights of women and Native Americans. Above all, they did not abolish the institution of slavery, our nation’s Original Sin. It would take many years, and much blood, to begin to rectify those mistakes.
Still, for more than two centuries, the meaning of the Bill of Rights was generally expanded, though — especially in wartime — it sometimes temporarily contracted. Yet the basic principles that guided America were sustained despite civil war, world wars, depressions, and endless challenges. Then, one September morning, our Post-Constitutional era began amid falling towers and empty skies. What have we lost since? More than we imagine. A look at the Bill of Rights, amendment by amendment, tells the tale.
The First Amendment
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
The First Amendment was meant to make one thing indisputably clear: free speech was the basis for a government of the people. Without a free press, as well as the ability to openly gather, debate, protest, and criticize, how would the people be able to judge their government’s adherence to the other rights? How could people vote knowledgeably if they didn’t know what was being done in their name by their government? An informed citizenry, Thomas Jefferson stated, was “a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.”
That was how it was seen long ago. In Post-Constitutional America, however, the government strives to “control the message,” to actively thwart efforts to maintain a citizenry informed about what’s done in its name, a concept that these days seems as quaint as Jefferson’s powdered wig. There are far too many examples of the post-9/11 erosion of the First Amendment to list here. Let’s just look at a few important ones that tell the tale of what we have lost since 9/11.
(Lack of) Freedom of Information
In 1966, an idea for keeping Americans better informed on the workings of their government was hatched: the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Strengthened in 1974, it began with the premise that, except for some obvious categories (like serious national security matters and personal information), the position of the government should be: everything it does is available to the public. Like the Bill of Rights, which made specific the limits of government, FOIA began with a presumption that it was the government’s duty to make information available — and quickly — to the people, unless a convincing case could be made otherwise. The default position of the FOIA switch was set to ON.
Three decades later, the FOIA system works far differently. Agencies are generally loath to release documents of any sort and instead put their efforts into creating roadblocks to legitimate requests. Some still require signatures on paper. (The State Department notes, “Requests for personal information cannot be submitted electronically and should be submitted by mail.”) Others demand hyper-detailed information like the precise dates and titles of documents whose dates and titles may be classified and unavailable. The NSA simply denies almost all FOIA requests out of hand, absent a court order.
Most federal agencies now regard the deadline mandated for a response as the time period to send out a “request received” note. They tend to assign only a few staff members to processing requests, leading to near-endless delays. At the State Department, most FOIA work is done on a part-time basis by retirees. The CIA won’t directly release electronic versions of documents. Even when a request is fulfilled, “free” copying is often denied and reproduction costs exaggerated.
In some cases, the requested records have a way of disappearing or are simply removed. The ACLU’s experience when it filed an FOIA-style request with the Sarasota police department on its use of the cell phone surveillance tool Stingray could be considered typical. The morning the ACLU was to review the files, Federal Marshals arrived and physically took possession of them, claiming they had deputized the local cops and made the files federal property. An ACLU spokesperson noted that, in other cases, federal authorities have invoked the Homeland Security Act to prevent the release of records.
John Young, who runs the web site Cryptome and is a steadfast FOIA requester, stated, “Stonewalling, delay, brush-off, lying are normal. It is a delusion for ordinary requesters and a bitch of a challenge for professionals. Churning has become a way of life for FOIA, costly as hell for little results.”
Sealed Lips and the Whistleblower
All government agencies have regulations requiring employees to obtain permission before speaking to the representatives of the people — that is, journalists. The U.S. Intelligence Community has among the most restrictive of these policies, banning employees and contractors completely from talking with the media without prior authorization. Even speaking about unclassified information is a no-no that may cost you your job. A government ever more in lockdown mode has created what one journalist calls a “culture where censorship is the norm.”
So who does speak to Americans about their government? Growing hordes of spokespeople, communications staff, trained PR crews, and those anonymous “senior officials” who pop up so regularly in news articles in major papers.
With the government obsessively seeking to hide or spin what it does, in-the-sunlight contact barred, and those inside locked behind an iron curtain of secrecy, the whistleblower has become the paradigmatic figure of the era. Not surprisingly, anyone who blows a whistle has, in these years, come under fierce attack.
Pick a case: Tom Drake exposing early NSA efforts to turn its spy tools on Americans, Edward Snowden proving that the government has us under constant surveillance, Chelsea Manning documenting war crimes in Iraq and sleazy diplomacy everywhere, John Kiriakou acknowledging torture by his former employer the CIA, or Robert MacLean revealing Transportation Safety Administration malfeasance. In each instance, the threat of jail was quick to surface. The nuclear option against such truthtellers is the Espionage Act, a law that offended the Constitution when implemented in the midst of World War I. It has been resurrected by the Obama administration as a blunt “wartime” tool for silencing and punishing whistleblowers.
The Obama administration has already charged six people under that act for allegedly mishandling classified information. Even Richard Nixon only invoked it once, in a failed prosecution against Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg.
Indeed, the very word “espionage” couldn’t be stranger in the context of these cases. None of those charged spied. None sought to aid an enemy or make money selling secrets. No matter. In Post-Constitutional America, the powers-that-be stand ready to twist language in whatever Orwellian direction is necessary to bridge the gap between reality and the king’s needs. In the Espionage Act case of State Department contractor Stephen Kim, a judge departed from previous precedent, ruling that the prosecution need not even show that the information leaked to a Fox news reporter from a CIA report on North Korea could damage U.S. national security or benefit a foreign power. It could still be a part of an “espionage” charge.
A final question might be: How could a law designed almost 100 years ago to stop German spies in wartime have become a tool to silence the few Americans willing to risk everything to exercise their First Amendment rights? When did free speech become a crime?
Self-Censorship and the Press
Each person charged under the Espionage Act in these years was primarily a source for a journalist. The writers of the Bill of Rights chose to include the term “press” in the First Amendment, specifically carving out a special place for journalists in our democracy. The press was necessary to question government officials directly, comment on their actions, and inform the citizenry about what its government was doing. Sadly, as the Obama administration is moving ever more fiercely against those who might reveal its acts or documents, the bulk of the media have acquiesced. Glenn Greenwald said it plainly: too many journalists have gone into a self-censoring mode, practicing “obsequious journalism.”
For example, a survey of reporters showed “the percentage of U.S. journalists endorsing the occasional use of ‘confidential business or government documents without authorization,’ dropped significantly from 81.8% in 1992 to 57.7% in 2013.” About 40% of American journalists would not have published documents like those Edward Snowden revealed.
And the same has been true of the management of newspapers. In mid-2004, James Risen and Eric Lichtblau uncovered George W. Bush’s illegal warrantless eavesdropping program, but the New York Times held the story for 15 months, until after Bush’s reelection. Executives at the Times were told by administration officials that if they ran the story, they’d be helping terrorists. They accepted that. In 2006, the Los Angeles Times similarly gave in to the NSA and suppressed a story on government wiretaps of Americans.
Government Efforts to Stop Journalists
Reporters need sources. Increasingly, the government is classifying just about any document it produces — 92 million documents in 2011 alone. Its intelligence agencies have even classified reports about the over-classification of documents. As a result, journalistic sources are often pressed into discussing, at great personal risk, classified information. Forcing a reporter to reveal such sources discourages future whistleblowing.
In one of the first of a series of attempts to make journalists reveal their sources, former Fox News reporter Mike Levine stated that the Justice Department persuaded a federal grand jury to subpoena him in January 2011. The demand was that he reveal his sources for a 2009 story about Somali-Americans who were secretly indicted in Minneapolis for joining an al-Qaeda-linked group in Somalia. Levine fought the order and the Department of Justice finally dropped it without comment in April 2012. Call it a failed test case.
According to Washington lawyer Abbe Lowell, who defended Stephen Kim, significant amounts of time have been spent by the Department of Justice in the search for a legal rationale for indicting journalists for their participation in exposing classified documents. A crucial test case is James Risen’s 2006 book, State of War, which had an anonymously sourced chapter on a failed CIA operation to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program. When Risen, citing the First Amendment, refused to identify his source or testify in the trial of the former CIA officer accused of being that source, the government sought to imprison him. He responded that the “Obama administration… wants to use this case and others like it to intimidate reporters and whistleblowers. But I am appealing to the Supreme Court because it is too dangerous to allow the government to conduct national security policy completely in the dark.”
In June 2014, the Supreme Court refused to take Risen’s case on appeal, essentially ratifying a U.S. Court of Appeals decision that the First Amendment didn’t protect a reporter from being forced to testify about “criminal conduct that the reporter personally witnessed or participated in.” That decision makes clear that a reporter receiving classified information from a source is part of the crime of “leaking.”
Risen has said he will go to prison rather than testify. It is possible that, having secured the precedent-setting right to send Risen to jail, the government will bring the suspected leaker to trial without calling on him. Attorney General Eric Holder recently hinted that his Justice Department might take that path — a break for Risen himself, but not for reporters more generally who now know that they can be jailed for refusing to divulge a source without hope of recourse to the Supreme Court.
The Descent Into Post-Constitutionalism
As with the King of England once upon a time, many of the things the government now does have been approved in secret, sometimes in secret courts according to a secret body of law. Sometimes, they were even approved openly by Congress. In constitutional America, the actions of the executive and the laws passed by Congress were only legal when they did not conflict with the underlying constitutional principles of our democracy. Not any more. “Law” made in secret, including pretzeled legal interpretations by the Justice Department for the White House, opened the way, for instance, to the use of torture on prisoners and in the Obama years to the drone assassination of Americans. Because such “legalities” remain officially classified, they are, of course, doubly difficult to challenge.
But can’t we count on the usual pendulum swings in American life to change this? There were indeed notable moments in American history when parts of the Constitution were put aside, but none are truly comparable to our current situation. The Civil War lasted five years, with Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus limited in geography and robustly contested. The World War II Japanese internment camps closed after three years and the persecuted were a sub-set of Japanese-Americans from the West Coast. Senator McCarthy’s notorious career as a communist-hunter lasted four years and ended in shame.
Almost 13 years after the 9/11 attacks, it remains “wartime.” For the war on terror, the driver, excuse, and raison d’être for the tattering of the Bill of Rights, there is no end in sight. Recently retired NSA head Keith Alexander is typical of key figures in the national security state when he claims that despite, well, everything, the country is at greater risk today than ever before. These days, wartime is forever, which means that a government working ever more in secret has ever more latitude to decide which rights in which form applied in what manner are still inalienable.
The usual critical history of our descent into a post-constitutional state goes something like this: in the panic after the 9/11 attacks, under the leadership of Vice President Dick Cheney with the support of President George W. Bush, a cabal of top government officials pushed through legal-lite measures to (as they liked to say) “take the gloves off” and allow kidnapping, torture, illegal surveillance, and offshore imprisonment along with indefinite detention without charges or trial.
Barack Obama, elected on a series of (false) promises to roll back the worst of the Bush-era crimes, while rejecting torture and closing America’s overseas “black sites,” still pushed the process forward in his own way. He expanded executive power, emphasized drone assassinations (including against American citizens), gave amnesty to torturers, increased government secrecy, targeted whistleblowers, and heightened surveillance. In other words, two successive administrations lied, performed legal acrobatics, and bullied their way toward a kind of absolute power that hasn’t been seen since the days of King George. That’s the common narrative and, while not wrong, it is incomplete.
Missing Are the People
One key factor remains missing in such a version of post-9/11 events in America: the people. Even today, 45% of Americans, when polled on the subject, agree that torture is “sometimes necessary and acceptable to gain information that may protect the public.” Americans as a group seem unsure about whether the NSA’s global and domestic surveillance is justified, and many remain convinced that Edward Snowden and the journalists who published his material are criminals. The most common meme related to whistleblowers is still “patriot or traitor?” and toward the war on terror, “security or freedom?”
It’s not that Americans are incorrect to be fearful and feel in need of protection. The main thing we need to protect ourselves against, however, is not the modest domestic threat from terrorists, but a new king, a unitary executive that has taken the law for its own, aided and abetted by the courts, supported by a powerful national security state, and unopposed by a riven and weakened Congress. Without a strong Bill of Rights to protect us — indeed, secure us — from the dangers of our own government, we will have gone full-circle to a Post-Constitutional America that shares much in common with the pre-constitutional British colonies.
Yet there is no widespread, mainstream movement of opposition to what the government has been doing. It seems, in fact, that many Americans are willing to accept, perhaps even welcome out of fear, the death of the Bill of Rights, one amendment at a time.
We are the first to see, in however shadowy form, the outlines of what a Post-Constitutional America might look like. We could be the last who might be able to stop it.
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
Last year eight Americans — the four Waltons of Walmart fame, the two Koch brothers, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett — made more money than 3.6 million American minimum-wage workers combined. The median pay for CEOs at America’s large corporations rose to $10 million per year, while a typical chief executive now makes about 257 times the average worker’s salary, up sharply from 181 times in 2009. Overall, 1% of Americans own more than a third of the country’s wealth.
As the United States slips from its status as the globe’s number one economic power, small numbers of Americans continue to amass staggering amounts of wealth, while simultaneously inequality trends toward historic levels. At what appears to be a critical juncture in our history and the history of inequality in this country, here are nine questions we need to ask about who we are and what will become of us. Let’s start with a French economist who has emerged as an important voice on what’s happening in America today.
1) What does Thomas Piketty have to do with the 99%?
French economist Thomas Piketty’s surprise best-seller, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, is an unlikely beach read, though it’s selling like one. A careful parsing of massive amounts of data distilled into “only” 700 pages, it outlines the economic basis for the 1%-99% divide in the United States. (Conservative critics, of course, disagree.)
Just in case you aren’t yet rock-bottom certain about the reality of that divide, here are some stats: the top 1% of Americans hold 35% of the nation’s net worth; the bottom 80%, only 11% percent. The United States has such an unequal distribution of wealth that, in global rankings, it falls among the planet’s kleptocracies, not the developed nations that were once its peers. 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; for Germany, 77; 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 self-proclaimed “indispensable nation.”
Piketty shows that such inequality is driven by two complementary forces. By owning more of everything (capital), rich people have a mechanism for getting ever richer than the rest of us, because the rate of return on investment is higher than the rate of economic growth. In other words, money made from investments grows faster than money made from wages. Piketty claims the wealth of the wealthiest Americans is rising at 6%-7% a year, more than three times as fast as the economy the rest of us live in.
At the same time, wages for middle and lower income Americans are sinking, driven by factors also largely under the control of the wealthy. These include the application of new technology to eliminate human jobs, the crushing of unions, and a decline in the inflation-adjusted minimum wage that more and more Americans depend on for survival.
The short version: A rising tide lifts all yachts.
2) So why don’t the unemployed/underemployed simply find better jobs?
Another way of phrasing this question is: Why don’t we just blame the poor for their plight? Mention unemployment or underemployment and someone will inevitably invoke the old “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” line. If workers don’t like retail or minimum-wage jobs, or if they can’t find good paying jobs in their area, why don’t they just move? Quit retail or quit Pittsburgh (Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis) and…
Move to where to do what? Our country lost one-third of all decent factory jobs — almost six million of them — between 2000 and 2009, and wherever “there” is supposed to be, piles of people are already in line. In addition, many who lost their jobs don’t have the means to move or a friend with a couch to sleep on when they get to Colorado. Some have lived for generations in the places where the jobs have disappeared. As for the jobs that are left, what do they pay? One out of four working Americans earn less than $10 per hour. At 25%, the U.S. has the highest percentage of low-wage workers in the developed world. (Canada and Great Britain have 20%, Japan under 15%, and France 11%.)
One in six men, 10.4 million Americans aged 25 to 64, the prime working years, don’t have jobs at all, a portion of the male population that has almost tripled in the past four decades. They are neither all lazy nor all unskilled, and at present they await news of the uncharted places in the U.S. where those 10 million unfilled jobs are hidden.
Moving “there” to find better work isn’t an option.
3) But aren’t there small-scale versions of economic “rebirths” occurring all over America?
Travel through some of the old Rust Belt towns of this country and you’ll quickly notice that “economic rebirth” seems to mean repurposing buildings that once housed factories and shipping depots as bars and boutiques. Abandoned warehouses are now trendy restaurants; a former radiator factory is an artisanal coffee shop. In other words, in a place where a manufacturing plant once employed hundreds of skilled workers at union wages, a handful of part-timers are now serving tapas at minimum wage plus tips.
In Maryland, an ice cream plant that once employed 400 people with benefits and salaries pegged at around $40,000 a year closed its doors in 2012. Under a “rebirth” program, a smaller ice cream packer reopened the place with only 16 jobs at low wages and without benefits. The new operation had 1,600 applicants for those 16 jobs. The area around the ice cream plant once produced airplanes, pipe organs, and leather car seats. No more. There were roughly 14,000 factory jobs in the area in 2000; today, there are 8,000.
In Louisville, Kentucky, more than 5,500 people applied for what turned out to be just 50 factory jobs in 2013, some of them temporary, paying $15.78 per hour at Ford Motor Company’s Fern Valley Road plant. State unemployment officials sifted through the thousands of applications and forwarded them to Ford staff, who narrowed the field by lottery (which in itself says something about the skill levels of the jobs offered.) The wage offered to new employees is about half what union workers receive.
In January 2014, Ford announced it would hire another 350 people, to be pulled from an existing pool of 10,000 applicants. State officials in Kentucky approved $290 million in financial incentives, using taxpayer money, to bring those jobs to Louisville. The impact of those jobs is shockingly minimal; unemployment in the area is 8.2 percent, much higher than the U.S. national average. There are some 52,763 people in the Louisville metro area unable to find work, not including those working part-time jobs or who have given up trying to find work at all.
Also in in Louisville, Kentucky, General Electric’s Appliance Park, once employed 23,000 union workers at its peak in 1973. By 2011, the sputtering plant held onto only about 1,800 workers. What was left of the union there agreed to a two-tier wage scale, and today 70% of the jobs are on the lower tier — at $13.50 an hour, almost $8 less than what the starting wage used to be. A full-time worker makes about $28,000 a year before taxes and deductions. The poverty line for a family of four in Kentucky is $23,000. Food stamp benefits are available to people who earn up to 130% of the poverty line, so a full-timer in Kentucky with a family still qualifies. Even if a worker moved to Kentucky and lucked out by landing a job at the plant, standing on your tiptoes with your lips just above sea level is not much of a step up.
People once called Millinocket, Maine the Magic City. The Great Northern Paper mill, which conjured this town out of the backwoods and sustained it for a century, employed 5,000 people and sustained a way of life. At least until it closed for good in 2008, turning the community into a ghost town. 2014 saw a rebirth of sorts, as new owners repurposed the mill into a wood pellet factory. But only 55 jobs were created. The town hopes to attract tourists now, but they have not come.
Only a generation ago, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania had a steel mill that employed 31,500 people. They were not alone; in the final quarter of what was to be the American Century, some 1.5 million steelworkers lost their jobs. Including all benefits, an average union steelworker made $26.12 per hour then, the equivalent of $40.66 today. It was enough to create one of the most powerful economies on earth, supported by a robust middle class driving demand for housing, cars, everything.
It is common in such circumstances to blame greedy workers, and decry how their fate was tied to selfishness and out-of-control unions. But that would be wrong, or at least only part of the story. The ratio of CEO salary-to-average-worker-salary in 1980 was 42:1, climbing to 120:1 in 2000 and stands at 204:1 today. So indeed among the complex factors that changed America’s economic landscape, greed and selfishness did indeed play a part. It is just incorrect to blame it on the workers themselves.
Low paying jobs are not a rebirth.
4) Can’t people just get off their couches and get back to work?
There are 3.8 million Americans who have been out of work for 27 weeks or more. These are the country’s long-term unemployed, as defined by the Department of Labor. Statistically, the longer you are unemployed, the less likely it is that you’ll ever find work again. Between 2008 and 2012, only 11% of those unemployed 15 months or more found a full-time job, and research shows that those who do find a job are less likely to retain it. Think of it as a snowball effect: more unemployment creates more unemployable people.
And how hard is it to land even a minimum-wage job? This year, the Ivy League college admissions acceptance rate was 8.9%. Last year, when Walmart opened its first store in Washington, D.C., there were more than 23,000 applications for 600 jobs, which resulted in an acceptance rate of 2.6%, making the big box store about twice as selective as Harvard and five times as choosy as Cornell.
Telling unemployed people to get off their couches (or out of the cars they live in or the shelters where they sleep) and get a job makes as much sense as telling them to go study at Harvard.
5) Why can’t former factory workers retrain into new jobs?
Janesville, Wisconsin, had the oldest General Motors car factory in America, one that candidate Obama visited in 2007 and insisted would be there for another 100 years. Two days before Christmas that year and just before Obama’s inauguration, the plant closed forever, throwing 5,000 people out of work. This devastated the town, because you either worked in the plant or in a business that depended on people working in the plant. The new president and Congress quickly paid for a two-million-dollar Janesville retraining program, using state community colleges the way the government once used trade schools built to teach new immigrants the skills needed by that Janesville factory a century ago.
This time around, however, those who finished their retraining programs simply became trained unemployables rather than untrained ones. It turned out that having a certificate in “heating and ventilation” did not automatically lead to a job in the field. There were already plenty of people out there with such certificates, never mind actual college degrees. And those who did find work in some field saw their take-home pay drop by 36%. This, it seems, is increasingly typical in twenty-first-century America (though retraining programs have been little studied in recent years).
Manufacturing is dead and the future lies in a high-tech, information-based economy, some say. So why can’t former factory workers be trained to do that? Maybe some percentage could, but the U.S. graduated 1,606,000 students with bachelor’s degrees in 2014, many of whom already have such skills.
Bottom Line: Jobs create the need for training. Training does not create jobs.
6) Shouldn’t we cut public assistance and force people into the job market?
At some point in any discussion of jobs, someone will drop the nuclear option: cut federal and state benefits and do away with most public assistance. That’ll motivate people to find jobs — or starve. Unemployment money and food stamps (now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) encourage people to be lazy. Why should tax dollars be used to give food to people who won’t work for it? “If you’re able-bodied, you should be willing to work,” former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said discussing food stamp cuts.
The problem with such statements is 73% of those enrolled in the country’s major public benefits programs are, in fact, from working families — just in jobs whose paychecks don’t cover life’s basic necessities. McDonald’s workers alone receive $1.2 billion in federal assistance per year.
Why do so many of the employed need food stamps? It’s not complicated. Workers in the minimum-wage economy often need them simply to survive. All in all, 47 million people get SNAP nationwide because without it they would go hungry.
In Ohio, where I did some of the research for my book Ghosts of Tom Joad, the state pays out benefits on the first of each month. Pay Day, Food Day, Mother’s Day, people call it. SNAP is distributed in the form of an Electronic Bank Transfer card, or EBT, which, recipients will tell you, stands for “Eat Better Tonight.” EBT-friendly stores open early and stay open late on the first of the month because most people are pretty hungry come the Day.
A single person with nothing to her name in the lower 48 states would qualify for no more than $189 a month in SNAP. If she works, her net monthly income is multiplied by .3, and the result is subtracted from the maximum allotment. Less than fifty bucks a week for food isn’t exactly luxury fare. Sure, she can skip a meal if she needs to, and she likely does. However, she may have kids; almost two-thirds of SNAP children live in single-parent households. Twenty percent or more of the child population in 37 states lived in “food insecure households” in 2011, with New Mexico (30.6%) and the District of Columbia (30%) topping the list. And it’s not just kids. Households with disabled people account for 16% of SNAP benefits, while 9% go to households with senior citizens.
Almost 22% of American children under age 18 lived in poverty in 2012; for those under age five, it’s more than 25%. Almost 1 in 10 live in extreme poverty.
Our system is trending toward asking kids (and the disabled, and the elderly) to go to hell if they’re hungry. Many are already there.
7) Why are Walmart and other businesses opposed to SNAP cuts?
Public benefits are now a huge part of the profits of certain major corporations. In a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Walmart was oddly blunt about what SNAP cuts could do to its bottom line:
“Our business operations are subject to numerous risks, factors, and uncertainties, domestically and internationally, which are outside our control. These factors include… changes in the amount of payments made under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Plan and other public assistance plans, [and] changes in the eligibility requirements of public assistance plans.”
How much profit do such businesses make from public assistance? Short answer: big bucks. In one year, nine Walmart Supercenters in Massachusetts received more than $33 million in SNAP dollars — more than four times the SNAP money spent at farmers’ markets nationwide. In two years, Walmart received about half of the one billion dollars in SNAP expenditures in Oklahoma. Overall, 18% of all food benefits money is spent at Walmart.
Pepsi, Coke, and the grocery chain Kroger lobbied for food stamps, an indication of how much they rely on the money. The CEO of Kraft admitted that the mac n’ cheese maker opposed food stamp cuts because users were “a big part of our audience.” One-sixth of Kraft’s revenues come from food stamp purchases. Yum Brands, the operator of KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut, tried to convince lawmakers in several states to allow its restaurants to accept food stamps. Products eligible for SNAP purchases are supposed to be limited to “healthy foods.” Yet lobbying by the soda industry keeps sugary drinks on the approved list, while companies like Coke and Pepsi pull in four billion dollars a year in revenues from SNAP money.
There is another side to big retail and fast food’s support for food stamps.
There is much talk about the minimum wage. What was once a way for teenagers and college kids to earn a little pocket money has devolved into the take-home pay for a vast swath of America. Defenders of a low minimum wage insist that most of us benefit from workers being paid very little; lower wages mean lower costs for Walmart and others, and so lower prices for us.
Makes sense, except that it is not true.
The difference between what Walmart pays the majority of its employees and what those employees need is made up by taxpayers in the form of food stamps and other assistance. Walmart is America’s largest private employer, so we’ll use them here for most of the examples, but this applies across the board.
Choose your statistic to understand the problem: about 25% of all employed people in the U.S. receive some form of public assistance; in the fast food industry, it is 53%. About 1 out of every 3 retail workers gets public assistance. In sum, American taxpayers subsidize the minimum wage with $7 billion in public assistance.
Let’s break it into a smaller piece: After analyzing data released by Wisconsin’s Medicaid program, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce estimates that a single 300-person WalMart in Wisconsin costs taxpayers $5,815 per Walmart associate in public assistance paid.
What about higher prices? The quick answer should be obvious by now. Whatever you think you are saving at the cash register in Walmart due to those lower wages, you as a taxpayer are paying anyway in taxes to feed the woman ringing you up. If store paid a living wage, step one would a lessening in demand for public assistance. Ka-ching, lower taxes!
But let’s follow the money. Walmart consistently pays the lowest wages they possibly can, and claims that keeps prices down. Walmart is not alone in this practice; the average family’s income is lower today than at any point in the last ten years, income inequality more extreme than at any point since before the Great Depression. The U.S. now has the highest proportion of low-wage workers in the developed world. The fall in wages parallels another trend line: in January of 2013, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that union membership had reached a 97 year low in America.
Poverty is big business.
8 ) Should we raise the minimum wage?
One important reason to raise the minimum wage to a living one is that people who can afford to feed themselves will not need food stamps paid for by taxpayers. Companies who profit off their workers’ labor will be forced to pay a fair price for it, and not get by on taxpayer-subsidized low wages. Just as important, people who can afford to feed themselves earn not just money, but self-respect. The connection between working and taking care of yourself and your family has increasingly gone missing in America, creating a society that no longer believes in itself. Rock bottom is a poor foundation for building anything human.
But won’t higher wages cause higher prices? The way taxpayers functionally subsidize companies paying low-wages to workers — essentially ponying up the difference between what McDonald’s and its ilk pay and what those workers need to live via SNAP and other benefits — is a hidden cost squirreled away in plain sight. You’re already paying higher prices via higher taxes; you just may not know it.
Even if taxes go down, won’t companies pass on their costs? Maybe, but they are unlikely to be significant. For example, if McDonald’s doubled the salaries of its employees to a semi-livable $14.50 an hour, not only would most of them go off public benefits, but so would the company — and yet a Big Mac would cost just 68 cents more. In general, only about 20% of the money you pay for a Big Mac goes to labor costs. At Walmart, increasing wages to $12 per hour would cost the company only about one percent of its annual sales.
Despite labor costs not being the most significant factor in the way low-wage businesses set their prices, one of the more common objections to raising the minimum wage is that companies, facing higher labor costs, will cut back on jobs. Don’t believe it.
The Los Angeles Economic Round Table concluded that raising the hourly minimum to $15 in that city would generate an additional $9.2 billion in annual sales and create more than 50,000 jobs. A Paychex/IHS survey, which looks at employment in small businesses, found that the state with the highest percentage of annual job growth was Washington, which also has the highest statewide minimum wage in the nation. The area with the highest percentage of annual job growth was San Francisco, the city with the highest minimum wage in the nation. Higher wages do not automatically lead to fewer jobs. Many large grocery chains, including Safeway and Kroger, are unionized and pay well-above-minimum wage. They compete as equals against their non-union rivals, despite the higher wages.
Will employers leave a state if it raises its minimum wage independent of a nationwide hike? Unlikely. Most minimum-wage employers are service businesses that are tied to where their customers are. People are not likely to drive across state lines for a burger. A report on businesses on the Washington-Idaho border at a time when Washington’s minimum wage was nearly three bucks higher than Idaho’s found that the ones in Washington were flourishing.
While some businesses could indeed decide to close or cut back if the minimum wage rose, the net macro gains would be significant. Even a small hike to $10.10 an hour would put some $24 billion a year into workers’ hands to spend and lift 900,000 Americans above the poverty line. Consumer spending drives 70% of our economy. More money in the hands of consumers would likely increase the demand for goods and services, creating jobs.
In many ways, the debate over raising the minimum age mirrors what was said about unions in the 1970s. Many at the time, especially pro-business economists and politicians as they do today, claimed the high wages fought for by unions hurt American competitiveness and cost jobs. How could a business survive paying $25 an hour? If wages were cut, and profits went up as costs fell, more jobs would be created. So how’d that work out? The demise of unions did certainly help raise corporate profits, but it clearly did not create jobs, at least not jobs at a living wage. Quite the opposite. Want more minimum wage jobs, maybe? Keep the wage dirt poor low.
9) Profit Before People
Where could the money to pay workers a living wage come from, except of course by raising prices?
The top one percent of income earners garnered 93 percent of income gains in the recent recovery. In the third quarter of 2012, corporate profits reached $1.75 trillion, their greatest share of GDP in history. During that same quarter, workers’ wages fell to their lowest share of GDP on record. The top six members of the Walton family (owners of Walmart) own as much wealth as 48 million other Americans combined. Meanwhile, among 35 economically advanced nations, the U.S. has the second highest rate of child poverty, 23%, just slightly better than Romania.
Yes, raise the minimum wage. Double it or more. We can’t afford not to.
10) Okay, after the minimum wage is raised, what else can we do?
To end such an article, it’s traditional to suggest reforms, changes, solutions. It is, in fact, especially American to assume that every problem has a “solution.” So my instant suggestion: raise the minimum wage. Tomorrow. In a big way. And maybe appoint Thomas Piketty to the board of directors of Walmart.
But while higher wages are good, they are likely only to soften the blows still to come. What if the hyper-rich like being ever more hyper-rich and, with so many new ways to influence and control our political system and the economy, never plan to give up any of their advantages? What if they don’t want to share, not even a little more, not when it comes to the minimum wage or anything else?
The striking trend lines of social and economic disparity that have developed over the last 50 years are clearly no accident; nor have disemboweled unions, a deindustrialized America, wages heading for the basement (with profits still on the rise), and the widest gap between rich and poor since the slavery era been the work of the invisible hand. It seems far more likely that a remarkably small but powerful crew wanted it that way, knowing that a nation of fast food workers isn’t heading for the barricades any time soon. Think of it all as a kind of “Game of Thrones” played out over many years. A super-wealthy few have succeeded in defeating all of their rivals — unions, regulators, the media, honest politicians, environmentalists — and now are free to do as they wish.
What most likely lies ahead is not a series of satisfying American-style solutions to the economic problems of the 99%, but a boiling frog’s journey into a form of twenty-first-century feudalism in which a wealthy and powerful few live well off the labors of a vast mass of the working poor. Once upon a time, the original 99% percent, the serfs, worked for whatever their feudal lords allowed them to have. Now, Walmart “associates” do the same. Then, a few artisans lived slightly better, an economic step or two up the feudal ladder. Now, a technocratic class of programmers, teachers, and engineers with shrinking possibilities for upward mobility function similarly amid the declining middle class. Absent a change in America beyond my ability to imagine, that’s likely to be my future — and yours.
If I had a crayon I’d draw you a picture, but I think you don’t really need that at this point. None of this is accidental, some sort of invisible hand at work.
The inflation-adjusted net worth for the typical household was $87,992 in 2003. Ten years later, it was only $56,335, or a 36 percent decline. For the top 5 percent of Americans, household net worth increased 14 percent over the same 10 years.
Companies will continue to demand Federal, state and local governments keep the minimum wage as low as possible. The same corporate entities will then continue to have those low wages subsidized by the taxpayers. Companies will continue to spew out propaganda to convince those same taxpayers that people on public assistance are lazy cheats, and that low wages mean low prices. Capping wages at 2009 levels assures that any broad rise in societal prosperity will not reach low-wage workers, and there is no broad upward path for retail workers and fry cooks. It’s not about education, either: the percentage of low-wage workers with at least some college education has spiked 71 percent since 1979, to now encompass over 43% of all low-wage workers. Meanwhile more and more money will be hoovered up by an ever-concentrated group of the super wealthy, squeezing their workers tighter and tighter. Hey, how many miles can you drive on a gallon of blood?
In today’s America, even working full-time, at most jobs you can’t earn enough to live with government assistance. More and more of everything is owned by fewer and fewer people. If you look that stuff up in a reference book, it is called feudalism. It is our future, and, of course, thank you for shopping at Walmart!
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
Film Director Oliver Stone (Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, Wall Street, Untold History of the United States, W., Nixon, Salvador) endorsed We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.
Have a look:
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
At age 53 everything changed. I was run out of the good job I had held for over 20 years, and for a long time the pension I’d earned, the thing I had counted on to provide for me, was in jeopardy. My skill set was pretty specific to my old job, the market was tough and nobody with a salaried job to offer seemed interested in an old guy and I needed some money. The sign pointed one way: retail and minimum wage. Those experiences at a store we’ll call here “Bullseye” helped inspire my new book, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent. Here’s an excerpt from that book.
Let the young men in other small Ohio towns dream of bright lights. In Reeve, Ohio we thought growing up we were going to work in that factory. But while we thought it was drawn in ink, it was really watercolor. There were pieces of machinery from the factory left on the ground, too unimportant to sell off, too heavy to move, too bulky to bury, left scattered like clues from a lost civilization, droppings of our failure. Might as well been the bones of the men who worked there.
Reeve lost out on the Bullseye store, when Gibbsville offered better tax breaks plus a couple years’ free lease on the old high school land after they closed the second high school due to people moving away.
The idea was our tax money was used to lure that company in, and they were smart enough to play Reeve off against Gibbsville like we did in football. It was our tax money being used to create jobs for us. They held a job fair, with tables set up in the other high school’s gym, decorated with magic marker-written signs and a few tired balloons, which was all that stood for the fair part. A lot of people were already lined up when I got there, and the Bullseye people were wearing their bright blue vests walking around, looking us over like livestock. We covered a lot of ground, from last year’s model of homecoming queen to retired guys who couldn’t afford to retire. “Interested in loading dock?” they said to me, “C’mon over and talk about cosmetics here,” they’d say to the pretty high school girls. We were good little pieces of meat.
One guy said that because Bullseye drove his small store outta business he had to take a minimum wage job at Bullseye, which only pays him enough so that he sorta has to buy at Bullseye. They made him a greeter at the front door and told him to be enthusiastic. He was. Like that, all the jobs were not much. You got one and you were happy at first, but you soon felt like you made it onto one of the life boats from the Titanic but were just waiting for the next big wave to dump.
My job at Bullseye was to take big boxes of things off the truck, and do the break down. It was called officially by Bullseye “Inbound Event Processing.” What happened is that a computer at the Bullseye headquarters called a computer at a warehouse, which notified a computer in New Jersey to send off a buy order ultimately to a factory computer in Thailand to make some more headache pills to replace the ones we had ordered for our store. They came in a big carton of say 144 smaller boxes. I tore a pick sheet off the printer, which told me to count out thirty-six of boxes into a plastic tub labeled Pharmacy, then count out twenty-four more and put them into a tub labeled Grocery, and so forth. Somebody else would come into the back room from each of those departments and take their tub. Because of me and my counting, the Bullseye store could order a big cheap box of 144 and I’d divide them up right. A computer could not do that and so almost reluctantly I had a job.
The job was real easy to learn. There was no apprentice system needed here, no paid jobs for boiler operators’ assistants, no plumber’s helpers. I walked in and Steve, the Team Leader, said “Take the pick sheet there, go to the truck, hit them with that barcode scanner gun, count them out right, initial the pick sheet and put it in that folder. Fifteen minute break’s at noon. No talking. Come in to work through the rear entrance, never use the front door or park in a guest space. Late from break twice and you’re fired. Bullseye welcomes you as a valuable addition to our team, um, Earl.” He’d looked up just at the end of my welcoming speech at my name tag. It was almost like Bullseye didn’t want him to think much. Maybe us neither.
On my first day, I met with Teri, from Human Resources. She told me I had to decide how Bullseye would pay me. See, Bullseye wanted everyone to use electronic direct deposit, which was the cheapest, well, Teri said best, thing for Bullseye and thus for its valued team members. Problem is that to use direct deposit you had to have a place to deposit into directly, a bank account. That used to be simple, and as a kid I remember being walked into the bank one Saturday morning with a bag of quarters and some paper birthday money to open my first passbook savings account. The old guy banker even let me keep the pen I used to sign things. Now, banks want chunky minimum amounts to open an account, and want to charge you for checks and stuff and fees, so for a guy like me banks were too expensive. You also needed a mailing address and ID to prove you were just homeless and not a homeless terrorist.
“No problem,” said Teri from Human Resources, “Bullseye understands and for a $7.95 biweekly courtesy fee will gladly issue you a paper check.” I would then have to take the check to a storefront check cashing place ’cause I had no bank account, and pay a courtesy fee of four percent largely because they could care less if you’re a homeless terrorist as long as they get their share.
“No problem,” said Teri from Human Resources, “Bullseye understands and will pay you in the form of a debit card. It looks just like a regular credit card, and every two weeks your salary gets loaded on it electronically, automatically.” I could even manage it on-line, if I had an on-line. So I did that. Only I found out that to get actual cash I had to stick the thing into an ATM for a fee, and if the balance fell below a minimum, fee, and there was a monthly maintenance charge fee, so basically if I didn’t spend it quick enough in the right way my money evaporated. The only place I didn’t pay a fee to spend my own money was if I used the card at Bullseye. Even just getting my hands on my money I’d earned was like trying to pick up dog poo by the clean end.
Teri also guided me through my drug test. Most places that don’t pay much seem really concerned that their workers are drug-free. I’m not sure why this is, ’cause I learned that you can be a banker or lawyer and get through the day higher than birds on a cloud. Regardless, I did what I had to do in front of another person, handing him the warm cup. He gave me one of those universal signs of the underemployed I now recognized, a “we’re all in it, what’re ya gonna do” look, just a little upward flick of his eyes. Even though I was hung over, I did pass thanks to alcohol not being part of the test.
Then I had to buy some blue, collared shirts and what my mom would’ve called khaki slacks, which were the uniform for Bullseye. I got to keep and wash the uniform, which was okay I guess, but even with the employee discount it meant that I worked my first two days just to buy the clothes they wanted me to have. As a kid I used to get all my clothes at Christmas mostly, except for jeans and T’s, but you had to be pretty rich to wear jeans and a T to work.
It was hard to get to know the other workers, the associates, as we were told not to talk and because it turned out that Steve the Team Leader had another computer. His computer wasn’t hooked up to the headache pill factory but instead was watching those pick sheets. As I came to learn, the bar code scanner was kind of watching over me. The people who came and picked up my filled tubs had one too, and those scanners told Steve how fast I was picking and filling. On days when I apparently wasn’t doing those things fast enough, Steve would come out and tell me I was not performing to my full potential as a valued teammate and that meant I had to work faster. I did. I did not have his computer, so I wasn’t sure how fast was right, or fast enough, and so I tried to just do it all as fast as I was able. But no mistakes—Steve was angry, sure, if I was slow, but if I put too many or too few into a bin and the bar code scanner told him, that made him especially angry. It was my job to pick and sort stuff, but it was Steve’s job to make sure Bullseye made money, he said. That was what I came to know as management. Still, it was better than when I worked off-the-books for a while in the craft store at Christmas, coming home like a dancing girl with a pocket full of ones and fives covered in glitter.
This girl named Leigh missed one day. She told Kevin the Store Manager she misread the schedule. Kevin said if she didn’t have a doctor’s note then one more time and she was gonna get excused, get back to work, have a good day. Excused was the word Bullseye used instead of fired. Words sort of meant something different inside Bullseye, like they never really wanted to make it clear what they meant. Kevin the Store Manager said one time he had worked twelve years for Bullseye, so he knew the special meaning words, and the rules and the tricks, and got to be the boss. Kevin the Store Manager loved rules. He was probably the only person who really didn’t stick Q-Tips in his ears just because the box said not to. Rules made him feel comfortable by making his choices smaller. He’d flirt clumsily with the high school worker girls, and they’d flirt back without enthusiasm thinking it might be good for their jobs in some still-developing pubescent version of being nice to the boss. Everybody learned fast. Kevin had as his big responsibilities making sure the pricing guns were racked at the end of each shift, and doing bag searches for the cashiers on the way out the door so they wouldn’t steal. You could guess this wasn’t Kevin’s dream job. It was nobody’s dream job. It was just somewhere you ended up and, if you were tired or unlucky, got stuck.
Out in the parking lot, this young guy with a clipboard came up.
“Hey, you got a minute? I’m from the union, wanna talk with you about a meeting we’re having soon.”
“Get away. We heard about you at the last team-building exercise. They said to stay away or we’d get fired. Said you can’t even be in this parking lot, it’s private property of Bullseye.”
“Just give me a minute. C’mon, they’re paying you, what, $7.25 an hour? That’s what a fast food lunch you gotta eat in your 15 minutes of break costs. Is that really what an hour of your labor, your life, is worth?”
“Mister, back off. We ain’t got much but these jobs. We’re scared. Some of us got kids and all of us got bills. We can’t afford to go to your meeting.” That union guy was out there all the time, even when it was raining. I couldn’t for the life of me understand why someone would be standing there in the rain. Must have been somethin’ in it for him.
New thing: Everyone has to memorize the five rules of superior customer service and recite them on demand from Kevin the Store Manager. He actually walks around the store and stops us, saying, “Earl, tell me Rule Number Three.” Rule Three is, “Ask the guest if she has found everything she desires.” The hard part is about half the staff speak Spanish, and memorizing the rules is really hard for them. Thank you for listening to this and please come again (adapted by me from Rule Five).
New break policy: zero to five and a half hour shift, no break. New schedule policy: all shifts reduced to five and a half hours or less. Somebody said it was illegal not to give us breaks, but what can you do, call the cops like it was a real crime? Well, turns out the joke’s on me. I asked that union guy out in the parking lot about it, and he explained to me that we were in a “Right to Work” state. By law, employers are not required to grant breaks to anyone over age 16; Bullseye gives us some kinda break, but in other places minimum wage workers like us do eight and nine hour shifts without a meal or a chance to get off their feet for a few minutes.
I actually asked Kevin the Store Manager about this. He was always encouraging us to talk to him about anything. “My door is always open,” he said, before going into his office and closing the door. One time I knocked, and standing in the doorway I asked him about having a break more often, just a few minutes to sit down and take a load off, and Kevin the Store Manager said:
“You’re lucky to have this job. Lotta people out there who’d take your place.”
“I know Kevin, and I’m grateful. I’d just like a chance to sit down and eat a regular lunch on long shifts.”
“Well, we all gotta do what is best for Bullseye. Careful you don’t bite the hand that feeds you.”
I got it. Even if I’m never fed.
People not caring like that let the bullies get in charge. When I was a kid I really believed the border between me and the world leaked both ways, so that I could maybe affect things instead of just being affected by them, but it’s different now when you work for a company like Bullseye. At that point you realize that not everything is possible, and that changes everything.
I did start talking once in a while with a woman named Jodie. She wasn’t very pretty, but she had that desperate available look in her eyes, the one women don’t see ’cause it isn’t there around women. “I got two kids,” Jodie told me. She was always tired, saying the one kid won’t sleep alone and insisted on crawling into her bed at night. “I told all the kids, Mama doesn’t have any more sugar, go to bed, but they keep coming around.” The older one watched the younger one all day while Jodie was at work, and at night he wanted time with Mom. Price on families is hard to measure but easy to see.
“After Chris, who used to be my boyfriend, lost his part time job and took up drinking full time, things went bad for us at home,” Jodie told me. “He’d come back later and later, and then started coming back so late it was early the next day. Too many times our money ran out ’fore the month did. Food bank at the Salvation Army looked like the Monroe Mall used to look, same people in line nowadays. It was first come, first served, and people with cars could get there before us that had to wait for the first bus at 4:22 a.m., so it wasn’t fair. Some mornings you’d be standing in the weather with the kids for hours for boxes of macaroni and cheese.”
“Hey Jodie,” interrupted Ephraim, her Team Leader. “Can you quit break a few minutes early and clear off the end caps on aisles four and six? We got a load of those new iTablets coming in and corporate wants to give them a lot of shelf frontage before the holidays.”
“Sure Ephraim, I’ll get right to it. What do you want me to do with all the boxes of macaroni and cheese that’re out there now?”
“Just throw them away, Jodie. They’re ready to expire. Nobody wants them. And get those tablets on the shelves right. Sales affect my bonus, corporate watches that stuff.”
I still had seven minutes left on break.
Guests, which was a Bullseye word for what we used to call customers, like us, but a darker version of us. One of them made one of the high school girl associates cry, saying she was gonna ruin her kid’s birthday because we sold the last of some stupid toy before she got there. Kevin the Store Manager came over and apologized, stepping right between the red-faced consumer and the crying valued associate, promising a rain check special order and a swift and courteous checkout when the time came. Another one threatened to call the police on us because we closed earlier than he said we said we would.
Funny thing happened. I was walking in to work, hat and jacket on outside so no one could see my Bullseye nametag and all. Some woman bumped into me by accident. She turned and apologized, said something about the weather getting colder and said sorry again, smiling. I then saw her like ten minutes later inside the store, me dressed as a Bullseye associate and her pushing a shopping cart. She almost ran over me, but didn’t say a word. Me, a person in the parking lot, but just an item inside.
We all learned the look, the minimum wage stare, the look that pleads with the customer to please just give up because we can’t fix it, but we won’t care about not fixing it. There was nothing else we could do. In return, the customer can say just about anything to us. Bullseye values its guests, so much that for a $4.99 purchase they can treat us this way. Self-respect goes cheap in Aisle 38.
Most of us were just trying to make a little money. But some people were spayed. They’d been yelled at too many times, or were too afraid of losing their jobs. They were broke. People—and dogs—don’t get like that quickly; it has to build up on them, or tear down on them, like erosion, one thing after another nudging them deeper into it. Then one day, if the supervisor told them by mistake to hang a sign upside down, they’d do it, more afraid of contradicting the boss than making an obvious mistake. You’d see them rushing in like twenty minutes early to stand next to that clock so they wouldn’t be late. One associate broke down in tears when she accidentally dropped something, afraid she’d get fired on the spot for it. They all walked around like the floor was all stray cat tails, step on one and set off all the cats screaming. It was a bad way to live as an adult, your only incentive to doing good work being they’d let you keep a job that made you hate yourself for another day.
Before I gave up, there was a potential, a white shirt maybe a little dirty, but with another good washing left in it to carry it into tomorrow. I had known prosperity, I had a place, at least in theory, I could bounce back to. Not these kids. They are never going to know where back is. They’re never gonna trust no one, never gonna trust nothing. When I was little, we all wanted to be astronauts. What do they have to grow up to be? To work at Bullseye? Jodie and those boys wanted me to give them some kind of a future when I couldn’t see down the road for myself, never mind for three other already wounded people. She said “I love you” to me a couple of times, but we both knew it wasn’t love or lust—maybe just comfort. And if they were lies, and you wanted to choose to believe them, then there was no sin. Sometimes that’s all you can expect, and sometimes that’s enough.
Still, me and Jodie got along well, and we thought of ways we could help each other. One day her kids were sick and she didn’t want to leave them home alone, so she brought them in to work. She told them to stay in the toy aisle all day looking at things, pretending like they could buy them, and me and Jodie took turns quietly checking on them until quitting time. Some cough-soothing syrup went missing too between my picking and Pharmacy’s filling. That day of all days Jodie got asked again to work through her break, so I had to feed the sick kids Ho-Ho’s and red pop for lunch, which probably made them feel better than me overall.
Our biggest attempt at trying to help each other was after Jodie transferred to sporting goods and one day told me how customers were always asking her for Aze bandages and white tape and stuff. That all was kept over in Pharmacy. Bullseye told us our guests were the most important product, and had Rule Number Two that if a guest asked for something somewhere else in the store you couldn’t just say, “Sure, over in Aisle Seven,” but you had to walk them there as a courtesy and wait to see if they found what they were looking for or needed additional guest service interaction. Jodie said the problem was so many people kept asking for athletic tape that she was walking a lot and her team manager, Ephraim, was on her for not being at her station. She told Ephraim about the athletic tape taking her away, but he said something about her needing to learn to work smarter not harder, which did not seem to help, because the athletic tape was still not where customers were asking for it. Having to actually talk to the customers, we came to understand, was the weak link in the chain of efficiently transferring money from them to Bullseye.
“So Earl,” Jodie said, “I know how we can get ahead here. We can do this thing called innovation Ephraim told us about at the last team-building meeting. He said we have to be ahead of our customers’ needs to succeed in this market. So, you pick me some athletic bandages and tape, and put them in my tub instead of Pharmacy. I’ll have the new things set up all nice near my station, and when Ephraim comes by I’ll show them off. We’ll for sure win that ‘Catch Us Doing Our Best’ prize.”
I think it was only because firing two valued teammates at the same time would’ve made Steve and Ephraim look bad, or because they couldn’t figure out a way to blame it on one another, that we didn’t get thrown out that day. Ephraim was a cooler Team Leader, explaining to Jodie about unit stock control, location sales metrics, and how important it was that each Bullseye store maintain its unique identical layout. Steve just told me never to do anything that wasn’t on the pick sheet again, or he’d call security and have me walked out. He also later secretly tagged me on my performance review as ineligible for rehire, which I only found out after I was laid off and trying to use Bullseye as a reference for Taco Bell. Jodie got reassigned to the children’s section, which everyone hated because it was where the most shoplifting took place and she was worried about having to see one of her mom friends doing it. Her first task was to put out only one shoe of a pair on display, keep the other one in the back until someone paid, to discourage people from stealing ’cause they couldn’t get the set. After customers just started stealing any old right shoe to go with any left shoe on the rack, Jodie had to redo it so there were only left shoes on display.
Then for a while the big hope was for a German car factory to locate in our part of Ohio. It was in all the news. At one point cars were pretty much made in Detroit, then somehow we got from there to here, where Detroit looks like Dresden after WWII and Dresden looks like Detroit before WWII. I noticed some foreigners in nice clothes come in to the food court now and then, along with our politicians who were offering tax incentives. I’d listen in on them while I was wiping things up, hoping to get the inside track on those jobs.
“Mr. Mayor, we thank you for your hospitality. Our friend here from your governor’s office has taken us around to so many of your rustic small towns. I must say, Ohio is quite beautiful.”
“We do like it here Manfred—may I call you that? But of course in addition to being so pretty a countryside, we have a lot of hard-working Americans anxious to get started.”
“And that, if I may be blunt Mr. Mayor, is our concern. The tax breaks are generous. What worries us, frankly, are the workers. Our motorcars are complex machines, and our quality is our brand. Can your people meet our standards, at our price?”
“These are good people, Manfred. Salt of the earth.”
“Mr. Mayor, allow me to tell you a true story. Apple had redesigned their iPhone’s display literally at the last minute. New screens began arriving at the assembly plant in China near midnight the day before the units were to ship. A foreman roused 8,000 workers inside the company’s dormitories, gave them each a hard biscuit and a cup of tea and sent them into the factory for work. Within thirty minutes of being woken, they started a twelve-hour shift fitting displays without a break to meet Apple’s deadline. Can your workers do that? Do they have those kinds of skills? Perhaps, of course, we would serve coffee instead of tea here. A little joke, yes?”
“Um, well, Manfred, I just don’t know. I mean, we have laws here, about people being able to sleep and how long they can work.”
“In my China factories I do not even by law have to allow workers breaks for water or sanitation. We do find limited meals are necessary for productivity. Those are the skills I need. Can your people provide them?”
“Manfred, really, those aren’t skills, getting out of bed to work in the middle of the night, twelve-hour shifts. You can’t bully your workers. Can you? What you’re talking is more like, well, I don’t know, more like you need farm animals than people.”
“Ha yes, Mr. Mayor. I understand your joke in English. We indeed have such a saying in German as well. You are funny, but in North Carolina they are offering us the incentive of using prison labor if we locate the plant there, only a few of your pennies an hour. I do think it would cost more to feed farm animals. That is my joke to you. But yes, yes, of course I understand. I have opened factories for our company all over the world, and I have heard the same thing in Shenzhen and in Chennai. In the end, there I have found workers at our price point, in our needed quantity, with the skills we require, despite these so-called ‘laws.’ It is flexibility those places offer me. Of course, your people do speak good English, and that is a plus for us. But can you guarantee me that they’ll work to our standards? Can you assure me for example that there will not be a union here to disrupt our labor price calculations?”
“Well, on the quality, sure, they’ll do it, of course. And now, you know I can’t control the thing about the union here—”
“Mr. Mayor, again, we are in your country and I am happy to follow your custom of direct speech. My company needs a North American facility, but our margins are tight. I can drop this plant across the border in Mexico as easily as I can drop it here. You will please think about that. Meantime, allow me to take a closer look at your labor pool, ‘size them up,’ I think you say in English, no?”
For me at Bullseye, things didn’t go so smoothly, even after I got my old position back. Steve the Team Leader explained one day that Bullseye had innovated a new warehousing system that centralized item distribution in such a way that goods came to our store pre-sorted into tubs. Instead of me breaking down a big box of toothpaste into tubs for Pharmacy and tubs for Grocery, it was done centrally somewhere else by someone else. The people who used to just have to pick up their filled tubs from me were redefined so that they now went into the big truck directly and lifted out their pre-filled tubs. They could skip their own bar code reading part, and so Steve laid off three of those people for efficiency, too. Steve did thank me very nicely for my contributions to the Bullseye family and took my blue vest. Steve said he hoped I would leave without a fuss.
I did. I guess in the end I had precious little fuss left in me.
For those (I’m talking to you here CNN) who seem surprised about events unfolding now in Iraq, here’s an excerpt from something I wrote almost four years ago. At that time pretty much everyone disagreed with these conclusions, but can you hear me now?
When wars end, usually there is a winner and a loser. Greeks burn down the city for the win; Trojans accept a dummy horse for the epic loss, like that. As we near the end of the U.S. military campaign in Iraq, and note the beginning of the State Department occupation (the formal mission handover is Oct. 1), it is a good time to decide who lost and who won, and what that means for the future of Iraq.
For the minority, all-around Washington guy (now stopping off briefly to be Secretary of Defense) Leon Panetta thinks we and the Iraqis sort of won. Leon said, “But the bottom line is, whether it’s diplomatic or whether it’s military, we’ve got a long-term relationship with Iraq. We’ve invested a lot of blood in (Iraq). And regardless of whether you agree or disagree as to how we got into it, the bottom line is that we now have, through a lot of sacrifice, established a … relatively stable democracy that’s trying to work together to lead that country.”
Tune into your favorite right-wing blog, and there is lots of mumbo-jumbo about the surge and sacrifices and all that false patriotism stuff that no longer even makes for a good country and western song. On firmer ground, it is less clear that the United States or Iraq won anything. The United States lost 4474 soldiers (and counting), with thousands more crippled or wounded, spent a couple of trillion dollars that helped wreck our economy at home, and did not get much in return.
Blood for Oil?
Only in the sense that one of out of every eight U.S. casualties in Iraq died guarding a fuel convoy. Iraqi oil output is stuck at pre-war levels and will be for some time. A drop in world oil prices would wreck the Iraqi economy. Despite Panetta’s patter about Iraq being a country willing to work with the United States, Iraq as a political entity follows its own path, virtually allied with Iran and unsupportive of American geopolitical dreams. The U.S. government will sell some military gear to the Iraqis and make some money, but in the end George Bush went to war and all we got was a low-rent dictatorship turned into a low-rent semi-police state.
As for Iraq being any sort of winner after being stomped on by the U.S. military, no. Iraq had its civil society shredded, underwent eight years of sectarian civil war, saw over 100,000 killed and is home now to a small but bustling al Qaeda franchise. The United States left without brokering a deal between the Kurds and the Arab Iraqis, leaving that kettle on full boil. The United States also failed to establish stable borders for the Kurds, such that the Iranians shell “Kurdistan” from the east, while Turkish jets drop bombs in the west. Turkey is part of NATO — imagine the U.S. government sitting silently if Germany bombed Poland next week.
What many people do not know is that one reason for the drop in sectarian violence in 2008 was that both sides had done much of the killing they needed to do. The fighting then was a civil war, Shia versus Sunni, and the death toll was high enough on both sides to achieve the level of segregation and redistribution of power desired at that time– they temporarily ran out of reasons for the war to continue at that level of intensity. Ominously, however, the Sunnis and Shias did not fully settle the score and so that pot sits bubbling on the stove as well.
Sectarian tensions do still run high in Iraq, and the United States has been left powerless to do anything about it. Except for some technical assistance and perhaps some very low-key special operations help, the U.S. government has taken a sideline seat to the sectarian violence over the last few months, leaving the fight to the Iraqis. Whether zero or 3,000 or 10,000 U.S. troops stay on in Iraq, it is unlikely that such a smaller U.S. force will intervene, given that a larger one declined to do so.
The tinderbox nature of things is such that the Iraqi government is seeking to ban a television drama about events leading up to the historic split in Islam into Sunni and Shiite sects hundreds of years ago. The Iraqi parliament asked that the Communication and Media Commission, a media regulator, ban “Al Hassan and Al Hussein” on the grounds it incites sectarian tensions and misrepresents historical facts. “This TV serial includes sensitive issues in Islamic history. Presenting them in a TV series leads to agitated strife,” said Ali Al Alaq, a politician who heads the religious affairs committee.
Needless to say, a glance at the daily news from Iraq will reveal the ongoing steady low hum of suicide bombings and targeted killings that is now all too much a normal part of life. The occasional spectacular attacks (instantly blamed on al Qaeda by the United States) make headlines, but every Iraqi knows it is the regular nature of these killings as much as the death toll itself that is most disruptive to society. Iraq is hardly a winner.
Who won the war? Iran…
Iran sat patiently on its hands while the United States hacked away at its two major enemies, Saddam, and the Taliban, clearing both its east and west borders at no cost to Tehran. (Iran apparently reached out to the U.S. government in 2003, seeking some sort of diplomatic relationship but, after being rebuffed by the engorged Bush Administration, decided to wait and watch the quagmire envelope America). The long slog both wars morphed into dulled even the reliably bloodthirsty American public’s taste for another war, and cooled off plans in Tel Aviv and Washington for airstrikes against Iran’s nukes (if Cheney couldn’t edge the United States into that fight, who can?).
The Iranians also came to see that Iraq, like Lebanon, made for a nice proxy battleground. By the time my tour in Iraq was wrapping up, the mine resistant vehicles we traveled in could take a solid hit from pretty much anything out there and get us home alive, except for one thing: Iranian-made roadside bombs ealled EFPs. These shaped “explosively formed penetrating devices” fired a liquefied white hot slug of molten copper that was about the only weapon that really scared us. The Iranians were players in all parts of Iraqi society post-2003, including the daily violence. (Iranian proxy warfare in Lebanon is well documented in Robert Baer’s excellent book, The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower which also advances the United States vs. Iran proxy theory in general.)
Iran not only lost an enemy when Saddam was hanged, it gained an ally in the new Iraq. When the United States’ last election surge withered away with the failure of the March 2010 Iraqi contest to produce a government, Iran stepped in to broker a settlement involving current PM Malaki (Malaki also serves as Minister of Defense and Minister of the Interior but is not a dictator) and the jolly Sadrists. Malaki, a Shia, happily recalls his days in exile in Iraq during the Saddam reign while Sadr hid out as a religious “student” in Qom when he was on the U.S. military’s capture or kill list post-2003. Both men remain beholden to Iran and continue to shift Iraq closer and closer to Tehran’s policy positions. Iran has its own proconsul in Baghdad, well-known locally but not discussed much in the west. The guy moved into the job after a tour as head of the Iranian special ops Qods Force.
Iran Ascendant in Iraq
Yet while strategic and political relationships are very important between Iraq and Iran, it is the growing economic and social-religious ties that cement the relationship and signify Iran as the real winner of the U.S. invasion. The raw numbers tell a big part of the story: the two countries’ current annual trade is valued at $4 billion to $5 billion and growing, with much more money changing hands on the black market.
On more formal terms, Iranian First Vice President Mohammad-Reza Rahimi kicked off the most recent round of goodwill on July 6, when he traveled to Baghdad to join the Iran-Iraq Joint Supreme Economic Committee. Better yet, Iran agreed to supply 9,400 barrels of “gasoil” a day to Iraq for power generation. Iraq also signed a $365 million agreement to install a pipeline network to import natural gas from Iran for power stations in the country. The pipelines will eventually supply 25 million cubic meters of Iranian natural gas a day to the Sadr, al-Quds and South Baghdad power stations in the Iraqi capital.
Iraq’s Foreign Minister, Hoshiar Zibary said that Iran and Iraq would soon sign an agreement to overcome “all the suspended problems between both countries.” “Iran is playing a positive role in Iraq and there is no objection for the strengthening of relations between the two countries,” Zibary said.
But while trade is good, and oil is necessary, the real money is in tourism. More specifically, religious tourism. Iranian Shia pilgrims traveling to previously off-limits shrines in Iraq, is a huge source of economic exchange. It also creates significant people-to-people ties that Iran will be able to exploit long into the future.
Iranian travel agencies control religious tourism to the Shia holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. The Iranian companies are associated with local hotels, also owned by Iranians. The control by Iranian companies extends to tourists from Lebanon who combine a visit to Iraq with one to the religious site Mashhad, in Iran. The Iranian domination also extends to security arrangement for protecting the tourists. That role is filled by one company owned by one of the religious parties in Karbala.
Business is Booming
Najaf is in the midst of a hotel building frenzy in a bid to ramp up the number of visiting pilgrims. While thousands of mostly Iranian religious tourists already pass through Najaf every day on what are marketed as nine-day tours of Iraq’s holy Shiite sites, hoteliers and business groups in the city expect hotel capacity, currently at breaking point, to double in the next three years.
Elsewhere, markets in rural Iraq are filled with Iranian goods, especially fresh fruits and vegetables. While the knitwear market is dominated by cheap Chinese stuff, other household goods are conspicuously marked “Made in Iran” and are snapped up by consumers.
I saw a little slice of this during my own time in Iraq. My Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) covered an area that included the city and mosque of Salman Pak. Once a center for chemical weapons production and secret police training under Saddam, Salman Pak is better known to most Iraqis and Iranians as a historical and recreational area, approximately 15 miles south of Baghdad near a peninsula formed by a broad eastward bend of the Tigris River. It is named after Salman the Persian, a companion of Mohammad, who is buried there.
Salman Pak is also site of the Arch of Ctesiphon, the remains of the once majestic Persian Sassanid capital. Ctesiphon is one of the largest and oldest freestanding arches in the world. Before the U.S. invasion of 2003, the area was a popular day trip out of Baghdad, and even sported a floating casino and villas for select friends of Saddam. My translator recalled family trips to the area the way my daughters remember a visit to Disney, leaving me a bit nostalgic for a time and place I never knew. The attraction now for Iranian pilgrims is the mosque, once a well-known Shia shrine, converted to a well-known Sunni shrine by Saddam and now once again a well-known Shia shrine after sectarian violence post-2003 blew away most of the Sunnis in the area.
On routine patrols through the area, my PRT and Army would frequently see giant tour buses with Iranian license plates and markings hauling tourists around the city. The Iranian tourists would take pictures of our military vehicles and gesture at us as we drove past, even as our soldiers scowled at them and pantomimed “no photos.” Nothing weirder than to be spending one’s days freeing Iraq only to run into Iranian tour agencies being the most obvious beneficiaries of that freedom. We didn’t know it then, but our tourists were offering us a glimpse of the future, a picture of who the winners, and losers, were to be in our war.
Adding it Up
As for Iraq, add it up:
–no resolution to the Arab-Kurd issue,
–no resolution to the Sunni-Shia issue,
–no significant growth in the oil industry,
–a weakened U.S. presence more interested in a Middle East land base and profitable arm sales than internal affairs,
–and an increasingly influential Iran seeking a proxy battleground against the United States and a nicely weak buffer state on its formerly troublesome western border.
None of that tallies toward a stable Iraq. Indeed, quite the opposite. Worst case scenario might look a lot like the darkest days in Lebanon, with many of the same players at the table.
Here’s the full article.
Here is a new review from The Avid Reader for Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent:
Peter Van Buren really hits his stride in the second half of his book GHOSTS OF TOM JOAD. So much so, I was often reminded of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed.
The name Tom Joad is an intentional reference to Steinbeck’s GRAPES OF WRATH. Here, the protagonist Earl is seen as a young man riding the bus in Reeve, Ohio, but can be substituted by Anywhere, USA. Having myself come from small-town Ohio, I can relate to the relinquished fun of climbing the local water tower. Yes, just like Dicaprio in WHAT’S EATING GILBERT GRAPE. Van Buren continues to nail down the idiosyncrasies of the area, especially after an economic decline when the salary-paying factories leave town.
Like the referenced GRAPES OF WRATH, the future is bleak. In the author’s deft hands, the ways of the modern working poor are made clear: pay day loans, rent-to-own, working for healthcare coverage, SNAP benefits barely covering grocery expenses, and minimum wage. The bleakness doesn’t stop. Van Buren demonstrates through personal story the reasons people seek prostitution, gambling, drinking, and meth. The lives of the homeless are on full display, as they hide in their cars, are spurned from local parks, and are often victim of assault.
In the spirit of an honest review, I’m still unclear on the story. A boy, dead via bullet, riding along the bus throughout town. I kind of get that part. But then he strikes conversations with various people of the town, including family and friends, both living and dead. The stories are rich with detail and narrative—they could stand on their own—so the “story” of the ghost boy isn’t too distracting from the true nature of this book.
The first part of the book is choppy and repeats itself (McJob mentioned twice, as well as saying God needs to issue an apology repeated thrice), but hang in there for the real treat of the book, which takes off after fifty-percent. Many profound statements are made throughout, such as “I learned you could rob someone with a pen as easily as a gun” and “Work earns you money, but a job creates some value in yourself.”
Having personally experienced both sides of the proverbial fence, I can testify to the trueness of Van Buren’s writing. These lives, though fiction, are real and living among us. These “ghosts” are our neighbors in need of salvation. And for that attention, Van Buren has accomplished much.
I grew up in Ohio, more in a suburb than a place just like Reeve, the fictional setting of my book, but I saw for myself the changes that I’ve written about.
Our town had a sprawling factory, making big aluminum bodied semi-trailers. Nearby was Lorain, Ohio, the nearest “city,” which had a huge steel making complex, a shipyard building ships for the Great Lakes (like the famous Edmund Fitzgerald from the song) and a string of Ford plants that built cars and trucks. If you saw or drove an Econoline van in the 1970s, it probably came from there. I watched every one of those factories downsize, get sold off to foreign firms or just give up and close during my high school and college years.
Lorain, Ohio is a snapshot of our modern economy. Population is down more than six percent since 2000. You can rent a house with a yard and a garage there for under $600 a month, and the landlord will be glad to have you. The median income is only $30,526, low even for Ohio where the average is over $45k. About one third of the households earn less than $20k a year even as the poverty line for a family of four in America is $23,000. Nationally, the numbers are equally grim: more than forty-six million Americans – about one in seven – rely on food stamps, the equivalent of the entire populations of Texas and New York. The program now consumes two percent of the federal budget, or $78 billion in fiscal 2011. It is not shrinking, and there are few people who need food stamps who think they are getting enough.
The town I lived in, before the factories closed, had a sizable blue-collar population. Those people lived on the same streets with my own white-collar family. They had above-ground pools in the back yard, two cars, took vacations and sent their kids to college. Economically and socially there was no difference between the white-collar families and the blue-collar families, something that existed in America for a couple of generations after World War II and is now gone. I cannot for the life of me see how it can come back.
Everyone went to one high school, except for a small Catholic school that enrolled a few kids every year. About one third of my senior class graduated into the military, a third went to college (Ohio State was the overwhelming favorite though a handful went out of state, even Ivy League, every year) and about a third went to work in one of the factories. Those who had taken “vocational education” in high school typically got better jobs as machinist trainees, but there were jobs for the others, as long as they would show up, and learn to handle a broom, or stack boxes, or drive a forklift. It was all expected and understood.
The town is still there, though the population has turned over significantly. Most now commute to white-collar jobs. Anyone who still works in town is in the service industry, doing a job that does not make or create anything, putting in hours at a nail salon or retail store or, for many, behind the counter at a fast-food restaurant.
As does the main character in my book, I did work in retail for minimum wage, both at age 16 and again at age 53, and all the stories about “Bullseye” in the story are true events that either happened to me, or the people I worked with (I have disguised their identities). While I lived a life from teenager stocking shelves to older adult stocking shelves, the minimum wage only rose by a few bucks. The minimum wage today is $7.25—is a large latte really what an hour of labor is worth? What has changed significantly is who is now working these minimum wage jobs. Once upon a time they were filled with high school kids earning pocket money, or the archetypical student earning her way through college. In 2014, the jobs are encumbered by adults struggling to get by. Some thirty million Americans are trying to live on such wages, so something is wrong in what many still insist is the world’s strongest economy.
There is a rich body of fiction describing the darkest episodes in American economic history. Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, and the masterful film of the book, stand out, and both obviously informed my own writing. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle is almost equally as well known. Two other books worth reading along these lines are Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara and Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson. My fictional town of Reeve, Ohio is located “near” the more famous fictional town setting of Samarra’s Gibbsville, Pennsylvania and the actual Winesburg location of Clyde, Ohio. In most cases written contemporaneously, these books captured the uncertainty and fear of the, as no one writing knew how the Depression would end.
The 1970s as a transition decade, an explanation of how we got from prosperity to despair, is the subject of Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s, Last Days of the Working Class by Jefferson Cowie and The 1970’s: A New Global History by Thomas Borstelmann. All are accessible contemporary histories that build elements of the popular culture into the larger socioeconomic narrative.
Left Out in America, by Pat LaMarche, is a sensitive, sympathetic look at the lives of homeless women in modern America. Pat, as part of her campaign as the 2004 Green Party Vice Presidential candidate, spent several weeks living in homeless shelters to educate herself and raise awareness for the special issues women face on top of the daily struggle to simply feed themselves and their children. Though I spent some time myself living out of my car to prepare for this book, Pat offered a perspective unavailable otherwise to me. Pat lost the election that year to Dick Cheney, but continues her work as a journalist.
Nickel and Dimed, On (Not) Getting By in America, by Barbara Ehrenreich, is an evocative picture of life lived at minimum wage. Ehrenreich worked as a waitress, hotel maid, house cleaner, nursing-home aide, and Walmart salesperson. She discovered that one job is not enough; she needed at least two to live indoors.
For those wishing to learn more about America’s working class, the very best nonfiction on the subject are the books by Dale Maharidge and Michael Williamson, particularly Someplace Like America: Tales from the New Great Depression. Maharidge as the writer, with Williamson as a photographer, chronicle the new landscape of the working poor in America, and focus specifically on Youngstown, Ohio and its former roll as a steelmaking town. Working this topic together since 1980, the two Pulitzer-Prize winners have followed the lives of several families over the thirty-year span to present a devastating portrait of joblessness. Short of growing up in the Rust Belt as I did, these books give you the most authentic feel for that time and place available.
Bruce Springsteen wrote two of his more poignant songs about working life, The Ghost of Tom Joad (Rage Against the Machine offers a much rougher, more angry version, though the take with Tom Morello on Bruce’s new album is quite raw) and Youngstown, based on Maharidge and Williamson’s work, and contributed the foreword to their most recent book. Springsteen is the most relentless and prolific chronicler in popular culture of the plight of the working class, picking up the job from Dust Bowl singers like Woody Guthrie, and carrying the idea forward that America’s workers are resilient. Angry but ebullient, Springsteen echoes Maharidge and Williamson in believing that a new era will follow deindustrialization and that the men and women they write about will survive into it.
For me, I am not as sure about the future.
I wrote a piece of this story as a college student in 1981. I got an B+ on the assignment, the professor insisting people would not care to read about Ohio’s troubles. We’ll see if he was right or not. The details changed a lot over time and the current version is different from what I originally wrote (I am hoping for an A- this time around). The takeaway is that since I scribbled down those ideas, we invaded Iraq and the Middle East twice, along with Panama, Grenada, Afghanistan and a score of other places. In between wars I have heard commentator after commentator, politician after politician, talk about reviving the middle class, bringing back jobs, returning manufacturing to America, rebirthing the working class, how high-tech industries would solve everything, how green power initiatives would solve everything and on and on.
None of it was true, none of it happened. Instead, over the forty years between then and now, America seems to have changed for the worse, with more people in poverty, less money devoted to education and fewer jobs. There’s still a lot of hope out there, young people so smart, older folks working true. It has been a long bus ride for me, for us, but right now I am not sure where the journey will end.
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
I am very proud of my role as Associate Producer for the film SILENCED. Executive Produced by Susan Sarandon, directed by Oscar-nominated James Spione, the film premiered April 19 at the Tribeca International Film Festival here in New York.
The film is about the war being fought between those who reveal the dark truths about the United States’ national security policies, and a federal government ever more committed to shrouding its activities in secrecy.
According to the Justice Department, those who leak sensitive information to the public are a threat to the nation’s safety. We have seen under the Obama Administration more Espionage Act prosecutions than all previous presidents combined. Many of those pursued by the government risked their lives, their freedom and their honor to commit an act of conscience and tell the American people what their government is doing in their names.
— Jesselyn Radack blew the whistle on the Department of Justice’s attempts to cover up the unConstitutional treatment of the so-called American Taliban, John Walker Lindh. As a young lawyer, Radack fought for Lindh’s right to be represented as he was interrogated, then, after discovering the cover-up, told us all what happened. Radack went on to devote her career to defending whistleblowers (Disclosure: Radack was part of the team that defended me after the Department of State retaliated against me for my own whistleblowing), including the other two subjects of this film. She currently is part of Edward Snowden’s legal team.
— Thomas Drake blew the whistle on the NSA’s domestic spying programs years before Edward Snowden, and fought a bitter battle for his freedom. Almost immediately following 9/11, Tom began finding threads within the NSA leading to the unConstitutional spying on Americans that only now is being fully exposed. Tom was also one of the first U.S. government employees to go to Congress with evidence that the intelligence community might indeed have prevented 9/11 had they shared specific information already on file among various agencies.
— John Kiriakou was the first person associated with the CIA to publicly declare waterboarding is torture. He struggled to maintain his freedom, but ultimately was pressed into a plea bargain to avoid bankrupting his family. John is now serving a 30 month sentence in Federal prison for his whistleblowing. John’s wife was present at the premiere, and read aloud to the audience a letter John had sent her from prison.
I’ll leave the review of SILENCED to others, but it’s pretty damn good. I am far from objective on this subject, for being associated directly with the project, for being a whistleblower myself, and because I remain a patriotic American deeply concerned about what our nation has become. As we continue our slide into a post-Constitutional America, it will be future whistleblowers who may be the only ones who will show us what a government once of the people now is doing.
SILENCED will move from Tribeca through a tour of various film festivals. Wider distribution is in the works. Until then, here’s the trailer for the film (again, though I’m in the trailer, I’m not in the final version of the film.)
My new book, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percentis now available and shipping from Amazon in Kindle, paperback and hardcover.
The book is off to a good start. Here what one reviewer said:
Ghosts of Tom Joad is a book about the 99% but told from a very personal level. I needed to remind myself throughout the book that this is fiction, but it is also so many people’s real life story. Van Buren laces factual information throughout the book, but it fits into the story. It does not read like a collection of statistics or a leftist/union propaganda brochure. It reads as real life. This book is very well done on so many levels.
Here’s another, from Daniel Ellsberg:
In his new book Ghosts of Tom Joad Van Buren turns to the larger themes of social justice and equality, and asks uncomfortable questions about where we are headed. He is no stranger to speaking truth to power, and the critical importance of doing that in a democracy cannot be overestimated.
A lyrical, and deeply reported look at America’s decline from the bottom up. Though a work of fiction, Ghosts of Tom Joad is – sadly, and importantly – based on absolute fact. Buy it, read it, think about it.
Academy-Award nominated filmmaker James Spione:
Like his heroes Steinbeck and Agee before him, the author takes us on an unflinching tour of America’s “broken places,” yet true to his predecessors Van Buren never loses sight of his rough characters’ resilient humanity, their deeply held yearning for the grounding connection of family and community, their stubborn hope for a better life. An urgent, important story and an incredibly necessary book.
Ghosts of Tom Joad is an important book for me, and a once-in-a-lifetime chance for me to bring the issues of social and economic inequality in America to a wider audience, to expose clearly our apartheid of dollars in our nation. If you enjoy my writing here, or on TomDispatch, HuffPo, FireDogLake or elsewhere, picking up a copy of the book will help fuel what I hope to continue doing.
Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percentis a good story, but with a conscience.
There is, clearly to at least two or three people in Washington, no greater threat to American safety and security than Cuba. America has had a Cold War hard-on over Cuba for decades, and so spending millions of taxpayer dollars on it, even if it means a lot of that money actually and knowingly gets paid to the Cuban government itself, is OK. Freedom isn’t free.
One of the most recent such events was a failed U.S. government attempt to create a Cuba-only Twitter-like text system, and then to use subscribers’ mobile phones to seed anti-Castro propaganda. The bizarre thinking underlying all this was that such social media would foment “flash mobs” in Cuba that would somehow lead to a people power revolution to overthrow the Cuban government.
Cuba Libre, Cuba Tweet
In 2010, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), best known for overseeing billions of dollars in reconstruction money in the successful campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, decided to create a bare-bones “Cuban Twitter,” using cellphone text messaging to evade Cuba’s Internet restrictions. It was called ZunZuneo, apparently slang for a Cuban hummingbird’s tweet. Like Twitter, get it?
To hide the U.S. government’s involvement in all this, fake companies were established in the Cayman Islands, while DNS spoofing and other naughty tricks were employed to disguise the origin of messages, all with the goal of making sure neither the Cuban government nor the Cuban people knew this was a U.S. propaganda ploy. The plan was, according to documents obtained by the Associated Press, for the U.S. to build a subscriber base through “non-controversial content” such as soccer scores and hurricane updates. When the network reached a critical mass of subscribers, perhaps hundreds of thousands, the U.S. would introduce political content aimed at inspiring Cubans to organize “smart mobs” that would assemble at a moment’s notice a Cuban Spring. One USAID document said the formal goal was to “renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society.” This was all at a time when the U.S. fantasized that the Arab Spring would yield the same outbreak of democracy that the Ukrainian Orange Revolution is now famous for.
Hilarious aside: USAID in its internal project documents called hard-core Castro supporters “Talibanes.”
No Hay Problemas
To begin, the propaganda network coincidentally activated shortly after Alan Gross, a USAID subcontractor who was sent to Cuba to surreptiously help “provide citizens access to the Internet,” was arrested. No one claims there is any connection.
As the Cuban government became aware of the program, its users (who had no idea they were unwitting stooges in a USG black op) came under intense suspicion. This may cause Cubans to be wary of participating in future U.S. programs, and/or to be very suspicious of any legitimate third-party programs for fear of ending up in jail.
Because sending the texts needed to participate in the program was quite expensive in Cuba, and because the U.S. sent out thousands of messages itself, significant amounts of U.S. money were paid directly to the Cuban government-owned telephone company. The good news for taxpayers was that the Spain-based front company for this mess negotiated with the Cuban government for a bulk-rate for the texts. Can I get a Viva! from the crowd?
When the service started to become popular and exceed the technical capabilities of what the U.S. set up, the U.S. limited Cubans to only one text a day per person, unlikely to be conducive to creating flash mobs and revolution.
Various problems capped Cuban participation in the program to only about one percent of the total population. At one point USAID claimed this was good, and kept the project “under the radar.”
By mid-2012 Cuban users began to complain that the service worked only sporadically. Then not at all, and ZunZuneo simply vanished. The old web domain is now up for sale by a URL broker. Surprisingly, no takers to date. The ZunZuneo Facebook page is still online, last updated in May 2012. Be sure to hop online and “Like” them.
To hide the program from Congressional scrutiny, the money spent on Cuba was taken out of funds publicly earmarked for Pakistan.
As part of all the texting, a contractor for the project built a vast database about the Cuban subscribers, including gender, age, “receptiveness” and “political tendencies.” This will never be leaked, hacked, stolen or ever come into the hands of the Cuban government so that they can stomp out any legitimate dissent.
A lawyer specializing in European data protection law, told the Associated Press it appeared that the U.S. program violated Spanish privacy laws because the ZunZuneo team illegally gathered personal data and sent unsolicited emails using a Spanish front company. Especially in the wake of the revelations of NSA spying throughout Europe, this is unlikely to have affect on broader relations.
Since USAID, ostensibly a humanitarian aid organization, apparently created several international clandestine front companies, spoofed Cuban telcom networks and funneled money through Cayman Island banks, there is no chance that the CIA had anything to do with any of this.
USAID at one point turned to Jack Dorsey, a co-founder of Twitter, to seek funding for the project. Documents show Dorsey met with Suzanne Hall, a State Department officer who worked on “new media projects.” Ms. Hall, who appears to be about 26, is captured on video here, explaining how cool social media thingies are. Please note the statue of Hillary Clinton on the bookshelf on the right side of the screen.
Nothing in the documents available lists exactly how much this all cost American taxpayers.
Note: As we go to press, the Cuban government is still in power and doing just fine, thank you. Please note that U.S. government efforts to promote freedom in Cuba in no way conflict with U.S. government plans to maintain its off-shore penal colony at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, indefinitely.
The debate Edward Snowden envisioned when he revealed the extent of National Security Agency (NSA) spying on Americans has taken a bad turn. Instead of a careful examination of what the NSA does, the legality of its actions, what risks it takes for what gains, and how effective the agency has been in its stated mission of protecting Americans, we increasingly have government officials or retired versions of the same demanding — quite literally — Snowden’s head and engaging in the usual fear-mongering over 9/11. They have been aided by a chorus of pundits, columnists, and present as well as former officials offering bumper-sticker slogans like “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear,” all the while claiming our freedom is in direct conflict with our security.
It’s time to face these arguments directly. So here are ten myths about NSA surveillance that need debunking. Let’s sort them out.
1) NSA surveillance is legal.
True, if perhaps you put “legal” in quotes. After all, so was slavery once upon a time in the U.S. and apartheid in South Africa. Laws represent what a government and sometimes perhaps even a majority of the people want at a given point in time. They change and are changeable; what once was a potential felony in Colorado is now a tourist draw.
Laws, manipulated for terrible ends, must be challenged when they come into conflict with the fundamental principles and morals of a free society. Laws created Nelson Mandela, the terrorist (whom the U.S. kept on its terror watch list until 2008), and laws created Nelson Mandela, the president.
There’s a catch in the issue of legality and the NSA. Few of us can know just what the law is. What happens to you if you shoplift from a store or murder someone in a bar fight? The consequences of such actions are clearly codified and you can look them up. Is it legal to park over there? The rules are on a sign posted right where you’d like to pull in. If a cop tickets you wrongly, you can go to court and use that sign to defend yourself. Yet almost all of the applicable “law,” when it comes to the National Security Agency and its surveillance practices, was secret until Edward Snowden began releasing his documents. Secret interpretations of the shady Patriot Act made in a secret court applied. The fact that an unknown number of legal memos and interpretations of that secret law (themselves still classified) are operative means that we really don’t know what is legal anymore.
The panel of experts appointed by President Obama to review the Snowden revelations and the NSA’s actions had a peek into the issue of “legality” and promptly raised serious questions — as did one of the two federal courts that recently ruled on some aspects of the issue. If the Obama administration and the Justice Department really believe that all the NSA’s activities will be proven legal in a court of law, why not allow them to be tested openly and unambiguously in public? After all, if you’ve done nothing illegal, then there’s nothing to hide.
When Amnesty International first tried to bring such a question before the courts, the case was denied because that organization couldn’t prove that it had been subject to monitoring — that was a secret, of course! — and so was denied standing even to bring the suit. Snowden’s revelations seem to have changed all that. The documents made public have given “standing” to a staggering array of individuals, organizations, and countries. For the first time in 12 years, they pave the way for the issue to come to its proper venue in front of the Supremes. Openly. Publicly.
2) If I’ve done nothing wrong, I have nothing to hide. So why should I care about any of this?
Keep in mind that the definition of “wrong” can quickly change. And if you don’t know what the actual law really is, how can you say that you know you have done nothing wrong? If you’ve got nothing to hide, post your social security number and credit card information online, leave your curtains open at night, and see how that sits with you.
In a larger sense, however, the very idea that “I’ve got nothing to hide” is a distraction. The Fourth Amendment guarantees a right to privacy. The Constitution does not ask if you want or need that right; it grants it to everyone, and demands that the government interfere with it only under specific circumstances.
The Fourth Amendment came into being because of the British use of general warrants in the colonial era. Under that “law,” they could legally search whole groups of people, their possessions, and their papers without having to justify searching any specific person. Called “writs of assistance,” these general warrants allowed the King’s agents to search anyone, anytime, regardless of whether they suspected that person of a crime. The writs were most often used by Royal Customs agents (an irony perhaps, given the draconian powers now granted to U.S. Customs agents to search anyone’s personal electronics, including those of American citizens, at the border).
The U.S. fought a revolution, and James Madison wrote the Fourth Amendment, against broad government authority to search. Whether you personally do or do not have anything to hide is not even a question that should be on the table. It should be almost un-American to ask it.
3) But the media says the NSA only collects my “phone metadata,” so I’m safe.
My older, conservative neighbor quickly insisted that collecting this metadata thing she had heard about on Fox was necessary to protect her from all the terrorists out here in suburbia. She then vehemently disagreed that it was okay for President Obama to know whom she called and when, from where to where and for how long, or for him to know who those people called and when, and so forth.
Metadata is important. Ever play the game “Six Degrees of Separation”? Silly as it seems, almost anyone is indeed just six hops away from anyone else. You know a guy in Detroit who has a friend in California who has a sister who cuts hair whose client is Kevin Bacon’s high school classmate’s cousin. You and that cousin are connected. Publicly available information tells us that the NSA traces “three hops” from a target: A knows B, C, and D. But once C morphs into a target, C’s three hops mean the NSA can poke into E, F, and G, and so forth. The Guardian calculated that if A has 50 friends, the number of targets generated under the three-hop rule would be over 1.3 million people. I really do hope that you (and everyone you know, and they know) have nothing to hide.
4) Aren’t there are already checks and balances in our system to protect us against NSA overreach?
In recent years, the government has treated the king of all checks and balances, the Constitution, like a used Kleenex. The secret Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Court (FISA) was set up to provide judicial oversight in a classified setting to the intelligence community. Theoretically, the government is required to make a compelling case for the issuance of orders authorizing electronic and other surveillance, physical searches, and compelled production of business records. Either the government is very good at making its case, or the court has become a rubber stamp: that secret FISA court approved all 1,789 requests submitted to it in 2012.
The Patriot Act elevated a once rarely used tool, the National Security Letter (NSL), into the mainstream of government practice. National Security Letters are an extraordinary search procedure that gives the FBI the power to compel the disclosure of customer records held by banks, telephone companies, Internet service providers, public libraries, and others. These entities are prohibited, or “gagged,” from telling anyone about their receipt of the NSL. Though the Justice Department itself cited abuse of the letters by the FBI in 2008, in 2012 the FBI used 15,229 National Security Letters to gather information on Americans. NSLs do not require judicial approval and the built-in gag orders prevent anyone from seeking judicial relief; indeed, most people will never even know that they were the subject of an NSL. And at the moment, the Department of Justice is trying to keep classified an 86-page court opinion that determined the government violated the spirit of federal surveillance laws and engaged in unconstitutional spying.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper directly lied to that check-and-balance branch of the government, Congress, in a public session. (He later termed his response the “least untruthful” answer.) And we wouldn’t even know that he lied, or much of anything else about the NSA’s surveillance activities here or globally, if it weren’t for one man’s courage in exposing them. The government had kept it all from us for 12 years and never showed the slightest sign of reconsidering any part of that policy. Without Snowden, we would not even know what needs checking and balancing.
5) But I trust Obama (Bush, the next president) on this.
I can guess what your opinions are of the people that run the Transportation Safety Administration or the Internal Revenue Service. On what basis, then, can you conclude that the NSA or any other part of the government is any more trustworthy or competent, or any less petty?
While the government does not trust you to know what it does, thanks again to the Snowden revelations, we know that the NSA trusts some foreign governments more than you. The NSA is already sharing at least some data about Americans with, at a minimum, British intelligence and the Israelis. And who knows how those governments use it or whom they share it with downstream?
Do you really trust all of them all the time to never make mistakes or act on personal grudges or political biases? History is clear enough on what former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover did with the personal information he was able to collect on presidents, the Supreme Court, Congressional representatives, Martin Luther King, and others in the Civil Rights movement. Among other things, he used his secretly obtained information to out gay members of government. As for the NSA, so far it hasn’t even been willing to answer the question of whether it’s been spying on, surveilling, or gathering metadata on members of Congress.
Still, let’s assume that Obama or the next president or the one after that will never do anything bad with your personal data. Once collected, however, that data potentially exists forever. If the NSA is to be believed, it claims to hold metadata for only five years, though it can keep copies of intercepted communications from or about U.S. citizens indefinitely if the material contains “significant intelligence” or “evidence” of crimes. The NSA can hold on to your encrypted communications as long as is needed to break the encryption. The NSA can also keep indefinitely any information gathered for “cryptanalytic, traffic analysis, or signal exploitation purposes.” Data held is available to whoever can access it in the future, using whatever technologies come to exist. Trusting anyone with such power is foolish. And as for data security, we know of at least one recent instance when more than 1.7 million highly-classified NSA documents just walked out the door.
6) But don’t private companies like Facebook already have access to and share a lot of my personal data? So what’s wrong with the government having it, too?
While private companies can pass your private information to the government, either willingly or under secret compulsion, there still are some important differences.
At least in theory, it’s your choice to give data to private companies. You could stop using Facebook, after all. You can’t, however, opt out of the NSA. About the worst that Facebook and the others directly want is to take your money and send you spam. While certainly no angel, Facebook can’t arrest you, put you on the No-Fly list with no recourse, seize your property or put you under investigation, audit your finances, imprison you without trial as a terrorist, or order you assassinated by drone. Facebook can’t suspend your civil rights; the government can. That is a big, big difference. And by the way, a proposed solution to the metadata collection problem — having private companies, not the NSA, hold the data — is no solution at all. Data stored and available to NSA analysts, wherever it is, is data stored and available to NSA analysts.
7) All this surveillance is distasteful and maybe even illegal, but isn’t it necessary to keep us safe? Isn’t it for our own good? Haven’t times changed and shouldn’t we acknowledge that?
This isn’t a new argument; it’s Old Reliable. It was the argument that Hoover, Senator Joseph McCarthy, and so many others made to justify the particular acts they chose to endorse to protect us against Communism. The 1976 Church Committee Report, the first and only large-scale review of America’s internal spy networks, found that between 1953 and 1973 nearly a quarter of a million first-class letters were opened and photographed in the United States by the CIA. Like the NSA, it was at that time officially forbidden to spy on Americans domestically. It nonetheless produced a computerized index of nearly one and one-half million names. At least 130,000 first class letters were also opened and photographed by the FBI between 1940 and 1966, all to keep us safe and for our own good in changing times. I doubt many people now believe any of that is what kept the Reds at bay.
The same argument was made about the necessity of domestic surveillance during the Vietnam War. Again, from the Church Report, we learned that some 300,000 individuals were indexed in a CIA computer system and that separate files were created on approximately 7,200 Americans and more than 100 domestic groups under the umbrella of Operation MH/CHAOS, designed to ferret out supposed foreign influence on the antiwar movement. Intelligence files on more than 11,000 individuals and groups were created by the Internal Revenue Service between 1969 and 1973 and tax investigations were started on the “basis of political rather than tax criteria.” I doubt many people now believe any of that is what kept the nation from descending into chaos.
The Constitution and the Bill of Rights have matured with our nation, growing to end slavery, enhance the rights of women, and do away with Jim Crow and other immoral laws. The United States survived two world wars, the Cold War, and innumerable challenges without a massive, all-inclusive destruction of civil rights. Any previous diversions — Abraham Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War is a favorite instance cited — were short, specific, and reversed or overturned. The Founders created the Bill of Rights to address, point-by-point, the abuses of power they experienced under an oppressive British government. (Look up the never-heard-from-again Third Amendment.) A bunch of angry jihadis, real and imagined, seems a poor reason to change that system.
8 ) Terrorists are everywhere and dangerous.
From 1776 to 2001 the United States did not experience a terror attack anywhere close to the scale of 9/11; the worst terror attack against the United States as of 9/10, the Oklahoma City bombing, claimed 168 lives compared to some 3,000 at the Twin Towers. Since 9/11 we have not had a comparable mass-scale terror attack. No dirty bombs at the Super Bowl, no biochemical nightmares, no suicide bombers in our shopping malls or theme parks. There have been only about 20 domestic terror-related deaths since 9/11. Your chances as an American of being killed by a terrorist (the figures are for the world, not just inside the U.S.) are about 1 in 20 million. The inevitable comparison shows the odds of being struck by lightning at 1 in 5.5 million. You are, in other words, about four times more likely to be struck by lightning than killed by a terrorist. Most of the “terrorists” arrested in this country post-9/11 have been tragicomic fabrications of the FBI. 9/11 was a one-off, an aberration, so unique that its “success” stunned even Osama bin Laden. It was a single morning of disaster and cannot be the justification for everything the government wishes to do forever after.
9) We’ve stayed safe. Doesn’t that just prove all the government efforts have worked?
No, that’s called false causality. There simply is no evidence that it’s true, and much to the contrary. It’s the same as believing government efforts have prevented Martian attacks or wild lions in our bedrooms. For one thing, we already know that more NSA spying would not have stopped 9/11; most of the needed information was already held by the U.S. government and was simply not properly shared or acted upon. 9/11 was a policy failure, not a matter of too-little snooping. Today, however, it remains a straw-man justification for whatever the NSA wants to do, a way of scaring you into accepting anything from the desecration of the Fourth Amendment to taking off our shoes at airport security. But the government uses this argument endlessly to promote what it wants to do. Even the NSA’s talking points recommend their own people say: “I much prefer to be here today explaining these programs, than explaining another 9/11 event that we were not able to prevent.”
At the same time, despite all this intrusion into our lives and the obvious violations of the Fourth Amendment, the system completely missed the Boston bombers, two of the dumbest, least sophisticated bro terrorists on the planet. Since 9/11, we have seen some 364,000 deaths in our schools, workplaces, and homes caused by privately owned firearms, and none of the spying or surveillance identified any of the killers in advance.
Maybe we should simply stop thinking about all this surveillance as a matter of stopping terrorists and start thinking more about what it means to have a metastasized global surveillance system aimed at spying on us all, using a fake argument about the need for 100% security in return for ever more minimal privacy. So much has been justified in these years — torture, indefinite detention, the Guantanamo penal colony, drone killings, wars, and the use of Special Operations forces as global assassination teams — by some version of the so-called ticking time bomb scenario. It’s worth getting it through our heads: there has never been an actual ticking time bomb scenario. The bogeyman isn’t real. There’s no monster hiding under your bed.
10) But doesn’t protecting America come first — before anything?
What exactly are we protecting from what? If, instead of spending trillions of dollars on spying and domestic surveillance, we had spent that same money on repairing our infrastructure and improving our schools, wouldn’t we now have a safer, stronger America? Remember that famously absurd Vietnam War quote from an American officer talking about brutal attack on Ben Tre, “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it”? How can anyone say we are protecting our liberty and freedom by taking it away?
Bottom Line Up Front: The details of Obama’s most recent speech about “changes” to the NSA’s surveillance practices reveal that sadly little of substance will change. A few cosmetic touchups, some nice words, issues tossed into the pit of Congress to fade away in partisan rancor, and high hopes that the issue will slip away from the public eye as “fixed.” Not word one about how absent Edward Snowden’s historic disclosures the president would not even be offering this lip service, happy to allow the tumor of spying to continue to grow in secret as he had done for the last six years of his presidency.
But let’s get specific.
Obama announced that the U.S. will no longer electronically surveil allied, friendly, heads of state. So, Americans, the only documented way to protect yourself from NSA spying is to be chosen as leader of another country. Note that Obama did not specify what he means by allied and friendly (Turkey? Iraq? Brazil?), and he clearly did not outlaw spying on a head of state’s closest advisors, cabinet members, secretaries, code clerks and the like. This is simply a gesture; it is unlikely that any of German head of state Andrea Merkel’s cell phone conversations revealed much terrorist information anyway. Worldwide reaction, the audience to which this was aimed, has been tepid and unconvinced.
The secret Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Court (FISA) will need to grant the NSA permission to search the phone records metadata database. Most significant here is that the NSA will continue to compile the database itself. Use of the FISA court remains just the illusion of a check and balance, because either the government is very good at making its case, or the court has become a rubber stamp: that secret FISA court approved all 1,789 requests submitted to it in 2012. Of key importance is the question of what constitutes a “search” and a “record.” FISA decisions and Department of Justice internal legal briefs dramatically broadened the definitions of those words such that a “record” may now consist of every piece of data collected by say, Verizon. It is very, very unclear that this change announced by Obama will have any real-world positive impact on protecting Americans’ privacy.
Obama also announced that the NSA will face new limits on how far from a target it can search into the metadata. Currently the NSA traces “three hops” from a target: A knows B, C, and D. But once C morphs into a target, C’s three hops mean the NSA can poke into E, F, and G, and so forth. Obama wishes to limit this to two hops, A knows B and C. This is again a false palliative; if a “target” has fifty friends, the two hops rule authorizes access to a total of 8,170 additional people. And there is nothing to stop the NSA from redesignating any of them as a new target and thus allowing the math to expand the two hops rule indefinitely.
Changes Thrown into Congress
These are for all intents and purposes just throwaways. Obama knows as well as anyone that a hyper-partisan Congress, already divided on what if anything should be done with the NSA, heading into elections, will never act on these issues. Obama can take the high road and deflect any criticism from his progressive base by pointing a finger at Congress. Democrats can blame Republicans and vice-versa, so everyone wins in the calculus of Washington.
For the record, even Obama’s Congressional changes are limp. Having private companies instead of the NSA hold data for the NSA to search? What kind of practical change would result from that? A public advocate in the FISA court? A possible, but how many, what staff and resources, what actual role would they play, under what rules of disclosure by the government would they function? The adversarial judicial process that otherwise fuels our legal system, prosecutors and defense attorneys, rules to compel disclosure, cross examination and so forth would not exist as new FISA-only “advocate” rules are created in a pseudo-parallel system. And since the whole process would remain highly-classified, no one outside the government would ever know if such advocates indeed played any role in protecting our privacy.
The last change Obama threw to Congress concerned some form of privacy protections for foreigners. Again, this is just a sop to our “allies and friends” abroad. A Congress that apparently cares little about the privacy of Americans will never pass privacy protections for foreigners.
Changes Not Mentioned at All
What was not even mentioned by Obama is sadly the largest category of all. The list could fill dozens of pages, but the use of National Security Letters without judicial oversight is one of the most significant omissions. In 2012 the FBI used 15,229 National Security Letters to gather information on Americans. In addition, not a word was mentioned about pulling back the NSA’s breaking into the Internet backbone, accessing the key Google, Yahoo, Microsoft servers, the NSA use of malware to spy on computers, the NSA’s exploitation of software bugs, the NSA’s efforts to weaken encryption that puts our data at risk to ease the burden on the Agency of decoding things, the use of offensive cyberattacks, indiscriminate gathering of data in general contrary to the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against General Warrants and on and on and on and on, at least until the next revelations from Edward Snowden reveal even more NSA tricks being played on innocent Americans.
But the mother of all omissions from the Obama speech is this one: there is no proof that all of the spying and surveillance, at the sake of our basic Constitutional rights, has resulted in the purported aim of keeping us safe. The White House’s own review panel on NSA surveillance said they discovered no evidence that the bulk collection of telephone call records thwarted any terrorist attacks.
And there Mr. President is the real change needed. A massive, frighteningly expensive program that does much harm and no good does not need tweaking. It needs to be ended.
An interview with Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent author Peter Van Buren, tracing the evolution of his book from John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, through Woody Guthrie, Bruce Springsteen and Tom Morello.
The still photos in the video were taken by the author during his research travels throughout the Midwest. One location, Mingo Junction, Ohio, is famous as the shooting location for the factory scenes in Michael Cimino’s movie, The Deer Hunter. That factory, like most in the area, is now abandoned, so unneeded and unwanted that no one even bothered to tear it down.
In the 1960s, John Kerry was distinctly a man of his times. Kennedy-esque, he went from Yale to Vietnam to fight in a lost war. When popular sentiments on that war shifted, he became one of the more poignant voices raised in protest by antiwar veterans. Now, skip past his time as a congressman, lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, senator, and presidential candidate (Swift Boated out of the race by the Republican right). Four decades after his Vietnam experience, he has achieved what will undoubtedly be the highest post of his lifetime: secretary of state. And he’s looked like a bumbler first class. Has he also been — once again — a true man of his time, of a moment in which American foreign policy, as well as its claim to global moral and diplomatic leadership, is in remarkable disarray?
In his nine months in office, Kerry’s State Department has one striking accomplishment to its name. It has achieved a new level of media savvy in promoting itself and plugging its highest official as a rock star, a world leader in his own right (complete with photo-ops and sophisticated image-making). In the meantime, the secretary of state has been stumbling and bloviating from one crisis to the next, one debacle to another, surrounded by the well-crafted imagery of diplomatic effectiveness. He and his errant statements have become global punch lines, but is he truly to blame for his performance?
If statistics were diplomacy, Kerry would already be a raging success. At the State Department, his global travels are now proudly tracked by the mile, by minutes flown, and by countries visited. State even has a near-real-time ticker page set up at its website with his ever-changing data. In only nine months in office, Kerry has racked up 222,512 miles and a staggering 482.39 hours in the air (or nearly three weeks total). The numbers will be going up as Kerry is currently taking a 10-day trip to deal with another NSA crisis, in Poland this time, as well as the usual hijinks in the Middle East. His predecessor, Hillary Clinton, set a number of diplomatic travel records. In fact, she spent literally a full year, one quarter of her four years in office, hopscotching the globe. By comparison, Cold War Secretary of State George Schultz managed less than a year of travel time in his six years in office.
Kerry’s quick start in racking up travel miles is the most impressive aspect of his tenure so far, given that it’s been accompanied by record foreign policy stumbles and bumbles. With the thought that frenetic activity is being passed off as diplomacy and accomplishment, let’s do a little continent hopping ourselves, surveying the diplomatic and foreign policy terrain the secretary’s visited. So, fasten your seatbelt, we’re on our way!
We’ll Be Landing in Just a Few Minutes… in Asia
Despite Asia’s economic importance, its myriad potential flashpoints, and the crucial question of how the Sino-American relationship will evolve, Kerry has managed to visit the region just once on a largely ceremonial basis.
Diplomatically speaking, the Obama administration’s much ballyhooed “pivot to Asia” seems to have run out of gas almost before it began and with little to show except some odd photos of the secretary of state looking like Fred Munster in Balinese dress at the Asia-Pacific Economic Conference. With President Obama then trapped in Washington by the shutdown/debt-ceiling crisis, Kerry seemed like a bystander at APEC, with China the dominant presence. He was even forced to suffer through a Happy Birthday sing-along for Russian President Vladimir Putin. In the meantime, the economy of Washington’s major ally, Japan, remains sleepy, even as opposition to the U.S.-backed Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade pact grows and North Korea continues to expand its nuclear program seemingly unaffected by threats from Washington.
All in all, it’s not exactly an impressive picture, but rest assured that it’ll look as fetching as a bright spring day, once we hit our next stop. In fact, ladies and gentlemen, the pilot now asks that you all return to your seats, because we will soon be landing…
… in the Middle East
If any area of the world lacks a single bright spot for the U.S., it’s the Middle East. The problems, of course, extend back many years and many administrations. Kerry is a relative newcomer. Still, he’s made seven of his 15 overseas trips there, with zero signs of progress on the American agenda in the region, and much that has only worsened.
The sole pluses came from diplomatic activity initiated by powers not exactly considered Washington’s closest buddies: Russian President Putin’s moves in relation to Syria (on which more later) and new Iranian President Rouhani’s “charm offensive” in New York, which seems to have altered for the better the relationship between the two countries. In fact, both Putin’s and Rouhani’s moves are classic, well-played diplomacy, and only serve to highlight the amateurish quality of Kerry’s performance. On the other hand, the Obama administration’s major Middle East commitment — to peace negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians — seems destined for a graveyard already piled high with past versions of the same.
Meanwhile, whatever spark remained of the Arab Spring in Egypt was snuffed out by a military coup, while the U.S. lamely took forever just to begin to cut off some symbolic military aid to the new government. American credibility in the region suffered further damage after State, in a seeming panic, closed embassies across the Middle East in response to a reputed major terror threat that failed to materialize anywhere but inside Washington’s Beltway.
Prince Bandar bin Sultan of Saudi Arabia was once nicknamed “Bandar Bush” for his strong support of the U.S. during the 1991 Desert Storm campaign and the Bush dynasty. He recently told European diplomats, however, that the Kingdom will launch a “major shift” in relations with the United States to protest Washington’s perceived inaction over the Syria war and its overtures to Iran. The Saudis were once considered, next to Israel, America’s strongest ally in the region. Kerry’s response? Fly to Paris for some “urgent talks.”
Meanwhile, the secretary of state has made no effort to draw down his fortress embassy in Baghdad, despite its “world’s largest” personnel count in a country where an American invasion and nine-year occupation resulted in a pro-Iranian government. Memories in the region aren’t as short as at the State Department, however, and Iraqis are unlikely to forget that sanctions, the U.S. invasion, and its aftermath resulted in the deaths of an estimated 4% of their country’s population. Kerry would be quick to condemn such a figure as genocidal had the Iranians or North Koreans been involved, but he remains silent now.
State doesn’t include Turkey in Kerry’s impressive Middle Eastern trip count, though he’s traveled there three times, with (again) little to show for his efforts. That NATO ally, which refused to help the Bush administration with its invasion of Iraq, continues to fight a border war with Iraqi Kurds. (Both sides do utilize mainly American-made weapons.) The Turks are active in Syria as well, supporting the rebels, fearing the Islamic extremists, lobbing mortar shells across the border, and suffering under the weight of that devastated country’s refugees. Meanwhile — a small regional disaster from a U.S. perspective — Turkish-Israeli relations, once close, continue to slide. Recently, the Turks even outed a Mossad spy ring to the Iranians, and no one, Israelis, Turks, or otherwise, seems to be listening to Washington.
Now, please return your tray tables to their upright and locked position, as we make our final approach to…
… Everywhere Else
Following more than 12 years of war with thousands of lives lost, Kerry was recently reduced to begging Afghanistan’s corrupt president, Hamid Karzai, to allow a mini-occupation’s worth of American troops to remain in-country past a scheduled 2014 tail-tucked departure by U.S. combat troops. (Kerry’s trip to Afghanistan had to be of the unannounced variety, given the security situation there.) Pakistan, sporting only a single Kerry visit, flaunts its ties to the Taliban while collecting U.S. aid. As they say, if you don’t know who the patsy is at a poker game, it’s you.
Relations with the next generation of developing nations, especially Brazil and India, are either stagnant or increasingly hostile, thanks in part to revelations of massive NSA spying. Brazil is even hosting an international summit to brainstorm ways to combat that agency’s Internet surveillance. Even stalwart Mexico is now lashing out at Washington over NSA surveillance.
After a flurry of empty threats, a spiteful passport revocation by Kerry’s State Department, a bungled extradition attempt in Hong Kong, and a diplomatic fiasco in which Washington forced the Bolivian president’s airplane to land in Austria for a search, Public Enemy Number One Edward Snowden is settling into life in Moscow. He’s even receiving fellow American whistleblowers as guests. Public Enemy Number Two, Julian Assange, continues to run WikiLeaks out of the Ecuadoran embassy in London. One could argue that either of the two men have had more direct influence on America’s status abroad than Kerry.
Now, please return to your seats, fasten your seat belts, and consider ordering a stiff drink. We’ve got some bumpy air up ahead as we’re…
… Entering Syrian Airspace
The final leg of this flight is Syria, which might be thought of as Kerry’s single, inadvertent diplomatic accomplishment (even if he never actually traveled there.)
Not long before the U.S. government half-shuttered itself for lack of funds, John Kerry was point man for the administration’s all-out efforts to attack Syria. It was, he insisted, “not the time to be silent spectators to slaughter.” That statement came as he was announcing the recruitment of France to join an impending U.S. assault on military facilities in and around the Syrian capital, Damascus. Kerry also vociferously beat the drums for war at a hearing held by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
His war diplomacy, however, quickly hit some major turbulence, as the British parliament, not eager to repeat its Iraq and Afghan misadventures, voted the once inconceivable — a straightforward, resounding no to joining yet another misguided American battle plan. France was soon backing out as well, even as Kerry clumsily tried to soften resistance to the administration’s urge to launch strikes against Bashar al-Assad’s regime with the bizarre claim that such an attack would be “unbelievably small.” (Kerry’s boss, President Obama, forcefully contradicted him the next day, insisting, “The United States military doesn’t do pinpricks.”)
Kerry had his moment of triumph, however, on a quick stop in London, where he famously and offhandedly said at a news conference that war could be avoided if the Syrians turned in their chemical weapons. Kerry’s own State Department issued an instant rejoinder, claiming the statement had been “rhetorical.” In practically the same heartbeat, the Russians stepped into the diplomatic breach. Unable to walk his statement back, Kerry was humiliatingly forced to explain that his once-rhetorical remark was not rhetorical after all. Vladimir Putin then arose as an unlikely peacemaker and yes, Kerry took another trip, this time to “negotiate” the details with the Russians, which seems largely to have consisted of jotting down Russian terms of surrender to cable back to Washington.
His “triumph” in hand, Kerry still wasn’t done. On September 19th, on a rare stopover in Washington, he claimed a U.N. report on Syria’s chemical weapons stated that the Assad regime was behind the chemical attack that had set the whole process in motion. (The report actually said that there was not enough evidence to assign guilt to any party.) Then, on October 7th, he effusively praised the Syrian president (from Bali) for his cooperation, only on October 14th to demand (from London) that a “transition government, a new governing entity” be put in place in Syria “in order to permit the possibility of peace.”
As for Kerry’s nine-month performance review, here goes: he often seems unsure and distracted, projecting a sense that he might prefer to be anywhere else than wherever he is. In addition, he’s displayed a policy-crippling lack of information, remarkably little poise, and strikingly bad word choice, while regularly voicing surprising new positions on old issues. The logical conclusion might be to call for his instant resignation before more damage is done. (God help us, some Democratic voters may actually find themselves secretly wondering whether the country dodged a bullet in 2004 when George W. Bush won his dismal second term in office.)
In his nine months as secretary of state, Kerry, the man, has shown a genuine capacity for mediocrity and an almost tragicomic haplessness. But blaming him would be like shouting at the waiter because your steak is undercooked.
Whatever his failings, John Kerry is only a symptom of Washington’s lack of a coherent foreign policy or sense of mission. Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has been adrift, as big and dangerous as an iceberg but something closer to the Titanic. President Bush, the father, and President Clinton, the husband, had at least some sense of when not to overdo it. They kept their foreign interventions to relatively neat packages, perhaps recognizing that they had ever less idea what the script was anymore.
Waking up on that clear morning of September 12, 2001, the administration of Bush, the son, substituted a crude lashing out and an urge for total domination of the Greater Middle East, and ultimately the planet, for foreign policy. Without hesitation, it claimed the world as its battlefield and then deployed the Army, the Marines, the Navy, the Air Force, growing Special Operations forces, paramilitarized intelligence outfits, and drone technology to make it so. They proved to be good killers, but someone seemed to forget that war is politics by other means. Without a thought-out political strategy behind it, war is simply violent chaos unleashed.
Diplomacy had little role in such a black-and-white world. No time was to be wasted talking to other countries: you were either with us or against us. Even our few remaining friends and allies had a hard time keeping up, as Washington promoted torture, sent the CIA out to kidnap people off the streets of global cities, and set up its own gulag with Guantanamo as its crown jewel. And of course, none of it worked.
Then, the hope and change Americans thought they’d voted into power in 2008 only made the situation worse. The Obama administration substituted directionless-ness for idiotic decisiveness, and visionless-ness for the global planning of mad visionaries, albeit with much the same result: spasmodic violence. The United States, after all, remains the biggest kid on the block, and still gets a modicum of respect from the tiny tots and the teens who remember better days, as well as a shrinking crew of aid-bought pals.
The days of the United States being able to treat the world as its chessboard are over. It’s now closer to a Rubik’s Cube that Washington can’t figure out how to manipulate. Across the globe, people noted how the World’s Mightiest Army was fought to a draw (or worse) in Iraq and Afghanistan by insurgents with only small arms, roadside bombs, and suicide bombers.
Increasingly, the world is acknowledging America’s Kerry-style clunkiness and just bypassing the U.S. Britain said no to war in Syria. Russia took over big-box diplomacy. China assumed the pivot role in Asia in every way except militarily. (They’re working on it.) The Brazilian president simply snubbed Obama, canceling a state visit over Snowden’s NSA revelations. Tiny Ecuador continues to raise a middle finger to Washington over the Assange case. These days, one can almost imagine John Kerry as the wallflower of some near-future international conference, hoping someone – anyone — will invite him to dance.
The American Century might be said to have lasted from August 1945 until September 2001, a relatively short span of 56 years. (R.I.P.) John Kerry’s frantic bumbling did not create the present situation; it merely added mirth to the funeral preparations.
My new book, Ghosts of Tom Joad, A Story of the #99Percent, will be available March 2014.
Here’s a new video to give you a preview. You can learn more about the book, and see additional photos representing scenes from the book.
Direct link to the video.
This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.com. In light of the Bradley Manning verdict, this seemed worth re-reading.
On July 30, 1778, the Continental Congress created the first whistleblower protection law, stating “that it is the duty of all persons in the service of the United States to give the earliest information to Congress or other proper authority of any misconduct, frauds, or misdemeanors committed by any officers or persons in the service of these states.”
Two hundred thirty-five years later, on July 30, 2013, Bradley Manning was found guilty on 20 of the 22 charges for which he was prosecuted, specifically for “espionage” and for videos of war atrocities he released, but not for “aiding the enemy.”
Days after the verdict, with sentencing hearings in which Manning could receive 136 years of prison time ongoing, the pundits have had their say. The problem is that they missed the most chilling aspect of the Manning case: the way it ushered us, almost unnoticed, into post-Constitutional America.
The Weapons of War Come Home
Even before the Manning trial began, the emerging look of that new America was coming into view. In recent years, weapons, tactics, and techniques developed in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as in the war on terror have begun arriving in “the homeland.”
Consider, for instance, the rise of the warrior cop, of increasingly up-armored police departments across the country often filled with former military personnel encouraged to use the sort of rough tactics they once wielded in combat zones. Supporting them are the kinds of weaponry that once would have been inconceivable in police departments, including armored vehicles, typically bought with Department of Homeland Security grants. Recently, the director of the FBI informed a Senate committee that the Bureau was deploying its first drones over the United States. Meanwhile, Customs and Border Protection, part of the Department of Homeland Security and already flying an expanding fleet of Predator drones, the very ones used in America’s war zones, is eager to arm them with “non-lethal” weaponry to “immobilize targets of interest.”
Above all, surveillance technology has been coming home from our distant war zones. The National Security Agency (NSA), for instance, pioneered the use of cell phones to track potential enemy movements in Iraq and Afghanistan. The NSA did this in one of several ways. With the aim of remotely turning on cell phones as audio monitoring or GPS devices, rogue signals could be sent out through an existing network, or NSA software could be implanted on phones disguised as downloads of porn or games.
Using fake cell phone towers that actually intercept phone signals en route to real towers, the U.S. could harvest hardware information in Iraq and Afghanistan that would forever label a phone and allow the NSA to always uniquely identify it, even if the SIM card was changed. The fake cell towers also allowed the NSA to gather precise location data for the phone, vacuum up metadata, and monitor what was being said.
At one point, more than 100 NSA teams had been scouring Iraq for snippets of electronic data that might be useful to military planners. The agency’s director, General Keith Alexander, changed that: he devised a strategy called Real Time Regional Gateway to grab every Iraqi text, phone call, email, and social media interaction. “Rather than look for a single needle in the haystack, his approach was, ‘Let’s collect the whole haystack,’â€Š” said one former senior U.S. intelligence official. “Collect it all, tag it, store it, and whatever it is you want, you go searching for it.”
Sound familiar, Mr. Snowden?
Welcome Home, Soldier (Part I)
Thanks to Edward Snowden, we now know that the “collect it all” technique employed by the NSA in Iraq would soon enough be used to collect American metadata and other electronically available information, including credit card transactions, air ticket purchases, and financial records. At the vast new $2 billion data center it is building in Bluffdale, Utah, and at other locations, the NSA is following its Iraq script of saving everything, so that once an American became a target, his or her whole history can be combed through. Such searches do not require approval by a court, or even an NSA supervisor. As it happened, however, the job was easier to accomplish in the U.S. than in Iraq, as internet companies and telephone service providers are required by secret law to hand over the required data, neatly formatted, with no messy spying required.
When the U.S. wanted something in Iraq or Afghanistan, they sent guys to kick down doors and take it. This, too, may be beginning to happen here at home. Recently, despite other valuable and easily portable objects lying nearby, computers, and only computers, were stolen from the law offices representing State Department whistleblower Aurelia Fedenisn. Similarly, a Washington law firm representing NSA whistleblower Tom Drake had computers, and only computers, stolen from its office.
In these years, the FBI has brought two other NSA wartime tools home. The Bureau now uses a device called Stingray to recreate those battlefield fake cell phone towers and track people in the U.S. without their knowledge. Stingray offers some unique advantages: it bypasses the phone company entirely, which is, of course, handy in a war zone in which a phone company may be controlled by less than cooperative types, or if phone companies no longer cooperate with the government, or simply if you don’t want the phone company or anyone else to know you’re snooping. American phone companies seem to have been quite cooperative. Verizon, for instance, admits hacking its own cellular modems (“air cards”) to facilitate FBI intrusion.
The FBI is also following NSA’s lead implanting spyware and other hacker software developed for our war zones secretly and remotely in American computers and cell phones. The Bureau can then remotely turn on phone and laptop microphones, even webcams, to monitor citizens, while files can be pulled from a computer or implanted onto a computer.
Among the latest examples of war technology making the trip back to the homeland is the aerostat, a tethered medium-sized blimp. Anyone who served in Iraq or Afghanistan will recognize the thing, as one or more of them flew over nearly every military base of any size or importance. The Army recently announced plans to operate two such blimps over Washington, D.C., starting in 2014. Allegedly they are only to serve as anti-missile defenses, though in our war zones they were used as massive surveillance platforms. As a taste of the sorts of surveillance systems the aerostats were equipped with abroad but the Army says they won’t have here at home, consider Gorgon Stare, a system that can transmit live images of an entire town. And unlike drones, an aerostat never needs to land. Ever.
Welcome Home, Soldier (Part II)
And so to Bradley Manning.
As the weaponry and technology of war came home, so did a new, increasingly Guantanamo-ized definition of justice. This is one thing the Manning case has made clear.
As a start, Manning was treated no differently than America’s war-on-terror prisoners at Guantanamo and the black sites that the Bush administration set up around the world. Picked up on the “battlefield,” Manning was first kept incommunicado in a cage in Kuwait for two months with no access to a lawyer. Then, despite being an active duty member of the Army, he was handed over to the Marines, who also guard Guantanamo, to be held in a military prison in Quantico, Virginia.
What followed were three years of cruel detainment, where, as might well have happened at Gitmo, Manning, kept in isolation, was deprived of clothing, communications, legal advice, and sleep. The sleep deprivation regime imposed on him certainly met any standard, other than Washington’s and possibly Pyongyang’s, for torture. In return for such abuse, even after a judge had formally ruled that he was subjected to excessively harsh treatment, Manning will only get a 112-day reduction in his eventual sentence.
Eventually the Obama administration decided Manning was to be tried as a soldier before a military court. In the courtroom, itself inside a military facility that also houses NSA headquarters, there was a strikingly gulag-like atmosphere. His trial was built around secret witnesses and secret evidence; severe restrictions were put on the press — the Army denied press passes to 270 of the 350 media organizations that applied; and there was a clear appearance of injustice. Among other things, the judge ruled against nearly every defense motion.
During the months of the trial, the U.S. military refused to release official transcripts of the proceedings. Even a private courtroom sketch artist was barred from the room. Independent journalist and activist Alexa O’Brien then took it upon herself to attend the trial daily, defy the Army, and make an unofficial record of the proceedings by hand. Later in the trial, armed military police were stationed behind reporters listening to testimony. Above all, the feeling that Manning’s fate was predetermined could hardly be avoided. After all, President Obama, the former Constitutional law professor, essentially proclaimed him guilty back in 2011 and the Department of Defense didn’t hesitate to state more generally that “leaking is tantamount to aiding the enemies of the United States.”
As at Guantanamo, rules of evidence reaching back to early English common law were turned upside down. In Manning’s case, he was convicted of espionage, even though the prosecution did not have to prove either his intent to help another government or that harm was caused; a civilian court had already paved the way for such a ruling in another whistleblower case. In addition, the government was allowed to label Manning a “traitor” and an “anarchist” in open court, though he was on trial for neither treason nor anarchy. His Army supervisor in the U.S. and Iraq was allowed to testify against him despite having made biased and homophobic statements about him in a movie built around portraying Manning as a sad, sexually-confused, attention-seeking young man mesmerized by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Finally, the same judge who essentially harassed the press throughout Manning’s trial issued a 24-hour advance notice of her verdict to ensure maximum coverage only of the denouement, not the process.
Given all this, it is small comfort to know that Manning, nailed on the Espionage Act after multiple failures in other cases by the Obama administration, was not convicted of the extreme charge of “aiding the enemy.”
Not Manning Alone
Someday, Manning’s case may be seen as a bitter landmark on the road to a post-Constitutional America, but it won’t be seen as the first case in the development of the post-Constitutional system. Immediately following 9/11, top officials in the Bush administration decided to “take the gloves off.” Soon after, a wounded John Walker Lindh, the so-called American Taliban, was captured on an Afghan battlefield, held in a windowless shipping container, refused access to a lawyer even after he demanded one as an American citizen, and interrogated against his will by the FBI. Access to medical care was used as a bribe to solicit information from him. “Evidence” obtained by such means was then used to convict him in court.
Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen who clumsily plotted to detonate a nonexistent “dirty bomb,” was held incommunicado for more three years, over a year of which was in a South Carolina military jail. He was arrested only as a material witness and was not formally charged with a crime until years later. He was given no means to challenge his detention under habeas corpus, as President Bush designated him an “enemy combatant.” Pictures of Padilla being moved wearing sound-proof and light-proof gear strongly suggest he was subjected to the same psychosis-inducing sensory deprivation used as “white torture” against America’s foreign enemies in Guantanamo.
Certainly, the most egregious case of pre-Manning post-Constitutional justice was the execution of American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki by drone in Yemen, without due process or trial, for being an al-Qaeda propagandist. In this, President Obama and his top counterterrorism advisors quite literally took on the role of judge, jury, and executioner. In a similar fashion, again in Yemen, the U.S. killed al-Awlaki’s American teenage son, a boy no one claimed was connected to terrorism. Obama administration lawyers went on to claim the legal right to execute U.S. citizens without trial or due process and have admitted to killing four Americans. Attorney General Eric Holder declared that “United States citizenship alone does not make such individuals immune from being targeted.”
Then-FBI Director Robert Mueller, asked in a Congressional hearing if the FBI could assassinate an American citizen in the United States, replied that he simply did not know. “I have to go back. Uh, I’m not certain whether that was addressed or not.” He added, “I’m going to defer that to others in the Department of Justice.” As if competing for an Orwellian prize, an unnamed Obama administration official told the Washington Post, “What constitutes due process in this case is a due process in war.”
So welcome to post-Constitutional America. Its shape is, ominously enough, beginning to come into view.
Orwell’s famed dystopian novel 1984 was not intended as an instruction manual, but just days before the Manning verdict, the Obama administration essentially buried its now-ironic-campaign promise to protect whistleblowers, sending it down Washington’s version of the memory hole. Post-9/11, torture famously stopped being torture if an American did it, and its users were not prosecutable by the Justice Department.
Similarly, full-spectrum spying is not considered to violate the Fourth Amendment and does not even require probable cause. Low-level NSA analysts have desktop access to the private emails and phone calls of Americans. The Post Office photographs the envelopes of every one of the 160 billion pieces of mail it handles, collecting the metadata of “to:” and “from:” addresses. An Obama administration Insider Threat Program requires federal employees (including the Peace Corps) to report on the suspicious behavior of coworkers.
Government officials concerned over possible wrongdoing in their departments or agencies who “go through proper channels” are fired or prosecuted. Government whistleblowers are commanded to return to face justice, while law-breakers in the service of the government are allowed to flee justice. CIA officers who destroy evidence of torture go free, while a CIA agent who blew the whistle on torture is locked up.
Secret laws and secret courts can create secret law you can’t know about for “crimes” you don’t even know exist. You can nonetheless be arrested for committing them. Thanks to the PATRIOT Act, citizens, even librarians, can be served by the FBI with a National Security Letter (not requiring a court order) demanding records and other information, and gagging them from revealing to anyone that such information has been demanded or such a letter delivered. Citizens may be held without trial, and denied their Constitutional rights as soon as they are designated “terrorists.” Lawyers and habeas corpus are available only when the government allows.
In the last decade, 10 times as many employers turned to FBI criminal databases to screen job applicants. The press is restricted when it comes to covering “open trials.” The war on whistleblowers is metastasizing into a war on the First Amendment. People may now be convicted based on secret testimony by unnamed persons. Military courts and jails can replace civilian ones. Justice can be twisted and tangled into an almost unrecognizable form and then used to send a young man to prison for decades. Claiming its actions lawful while shielding the “legal” opinions cited, often even from Congress, the government can send its drones to assassinate its own citizens.
One by one, the tools and attitudes of the war on terror, of a world in which the “gloves” are eternally off, have come home. The comic strip character Pogo’s classic warning — “We have met the enemy and he is us” — seems ever less like a metaphor. According to the government, increasingly we are now indeed their enemy.
This article also appeared on:
The Nation http://www.thenation.com/article/175589/welcome-post-constitution-america
Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/peter-van-buren/bradley-manning-trial_b_3707109.html
Michael Moore: http://www.michaelmoore.com/words/mike-friends-blog/welcome-post-constitution-america-what-if-your-country-begins-change-and-no-one-notices
Asia Times: http://www.atimes.com/atimes/World/WOR-01-060813.html
Mother Jones: http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2013/08/bradley-manning-constitutional-rights
Le Monde Diplomatique (English): http://mondediplo.com/openpage/welcome-to-post-constitution-america
Information Clearing House: http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article35760.htm
Nation of Change: http://www.nationofchange.org/welcome-post-constitution-america-1375712052
Middle East online: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=60564
al-Arab online: http://www.alarabonline.org/english/display.asp?fname=\2013\08\08-05\zopinionz\970.htm&dismode=x&ts=8/5/2013%2011:15:21%20AM
Democratic Underground: http://www.democraticunderground.com/10023408050
Outlook India: http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?287286
Smirking Chimp: http://smirkingchimp.com/thread/tom-engelhardt/50975/tomgram-peter-van-buren-the-manning-trial-began-on-9-11
UPDATE: The al Qaeda “conference call” that prompted US Embassy closures a week ago in the Middle East was a lie.
(This article originally appeared on Huffington Post)
What do you call it when you follow the same strategy for twelve years not only without success, but with negative results? What if time shows that that strategy actually helps the enemy you seek to defeat?
Failing to Learn
America’s global war of terror can this week be declared officially a failure, total and complete. After twelve years of invasions, drones, torture, spying and gulags, the U.S. closed its embassies and consulates across (only) the Muslim world. Not for a day, but in most cases heading toward a week, with terror warnings on file lasting through the month. The U.S. evacuated all non-essential diplomatic and military personnel from Yemen; dependents are already gone from most other MidEast posts. Only our fortress embassies in Kabul and Baghdad ironically were considered safe enough to reopen a day or two ago.
The cause of all this? Apparently a message from al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri to his second in command in Yemen telling him to “do something.”
U.S. government sources (one hopes for a robust investigation) later revealed concerns over a vast al Qaeda plot to capture Yemen’s oil supply infrastructure, vene taking over cities and ports, while simultaneously bombarding Western embassies with a string of suicide blasts. The BBC reported that all appeared to be part of a “complex and audacious” plot designed to enact revenge after a series of U.S. drone strikes.
“Senior U.S. officials” (one hopes for a robust investigation) also revealed al Qaeda in Yemen has devised a new kind of liquid explosive that can be embedded in clothing, and which is not detectable by current security measures. That is of course an odd thing to say, revealing to the enemy that we can’t stop them– “It’s ingenious,” one of the officials said. Those same government officials also revived the now-crusty fear meme of the “Frankenbombers,” suicide bombers who carry explosives sewn into their body cavities.
Failure to Understand
All this might be read in one of three ways:
— The simplest explanation is that the threat is indeed real. Twelves years of war has simply pushed the terror threat around, spilled mercury-like, from country to country. A Whack-a-Mole war.
— U.S. officials, perhaps still reeling from Edward Snowden’s NSA disclosures, chose to exaggerate a threat, in essence creating a strawman that could then be defeated. In favor of this argument are the many “leaks” noted above, essentially disclosing raw intel, specific conversations that would clearly reveal to the al Qaeda people concerned how and when they were monitored. Usually try to avoid that in the spy biz. The Frankenbomber stuff is pure 2001 scare tactic recycled. The idea that al Qaeda sought to seize infrastructure is a certain falsehood , as the whole point of guerrilla war is never to seize things, which would create a concentrated, open, stationary target that plays right into the Big Hardware advantage the U.S. holds. Just does not make sense, and supports the idea that this is all made-up for some U.S. domestic purpose.
— However, the third way of looking at this is that the U.S. has failed to walk away from the climate of fear and paranoia that has distorted foreign and domestic policy since 9/12, Chicken Littles if you will. What if the U.S. really believed that al Qaeda was planning to take over Yemen this week in spite of the odd inconsistencies? What if “chatter” was enough to provoke the last Superpower into a super-sized public cower?
Failure to Not Act
The why in this case may not matter, when the what is so controlling. As I hit “submit” on this article, no embassies have been attacked; the only killings in Yemen we know of are a string of U.S. drone strikes coupled with public plans to deploy (additional?) special forces on the ground. That sadly predictable resort to violence by the U.S. shows that we have fundamentally failed to understand that in a guerrilla war one cannot shoot one’s way out. You win by offering a better idea to people than the other side, while at the same time luring the other side into acts of violence and political repression that make them lose the support of those same people. This is asymmetrical warfare 101 stuff.
So the U.S. embassy closures, the ramped up drone strikes, the threat of special forces, may be seen as failure in this light:
–al Qaeda blowing up an empty embassy would still make spectacular headlines and score their political points, the goal of terror. Even an empty embassy in smoldering ruins will drive home the weakness of the U.S. to defend itself, and provoke a significant and violent response that plays into al Qaeda’s long-game goals. The closures accomplish little strategically, though of course may still be necessary to protect lives. Nobody wants to be the last man to die for a mistake, reminded now-Secretary of State John Kerry during the Vietnam War.
–How long will the embassies remain shuttered this time? What about next week, next month, and so on? Media across the world are showing images of closed U.S facilities, a powerful propaganda image.
–In the populations al Qaeda seeks to influence, claiming they “humbled and scared” the US twelve years after 9/11 simply by ramping up their chatter seems an effective al Qaeda strategy. That the U.S. response is again to unleash violence in the Muslim world, especially significant this week as the Eid holidays begin, drives home al Qaeda’s point that America is at war with Islam– see, they may say, words alone are enough to unleash the beast against you.
Of Mice and Men: Historical Failure
My office is home to a few mice that have been here longer than I have. I feel they are cowards because they will not stand and fight, though I outweigh them by 200 pounds. They burrowed into my coworker’s desk and ate his Twizzlers. My colleague set traps. He comes from Ohio, where he has a nice lake house free of mice. It is better to fight them here than at home he says, but fight we must. Some have argued we can’t kill our way out of this dilemma. Leaving aside the issue of whether we should have moved uninvited into the mouse house in the first place, and leaving aside how the mice did not see themselves as liberated even after we got rid of the stray cats around here, they breed like rabbits. We can kill a few mice each day, but they just make more. We can’t kill all of them. Right now it is technology versus ideology. I hope the mice never learn to build car bombs or we are real trouble. God is with the patient, says an Arab proverb. We have the watch, but they have the time, says an American joke.
Analogies only go so far of course. What is clear is that al Qaeda’s strategy is as old as history, and the U.S. reaction both equally historic and predictable. As with the British thrashing about as their empire collapsed, the world’s greatest military defeated by natives with old rifles, so now goes the U.S., by its own hand.
Indeed, as a more eloquent commentator has said, “We continue to pay in blood because we can’t learn how to do something besides fight.”
This article originally appeared on Huffington Post.
As a State Department whistleblower, I think a lot about Edward Snowden. I can’t help myself. My friendships with other whistleblowers like Tom Drake, Jesslyn Radack, Daniel Ellsberg, and John Kiriakou lead me to believe that, however different we may be as individuals, our acts have given us much in common. I suspect that includes Snowden, though I’ve never had the slightest contact with him. Still, as he took his long flight from Hong Kong into the unknown, I couldn’t help feeling that he was thinking some of my thoughts, or I his. Here are five things that I imagine were on his mind (they would have been on mine) as that plane took off.
I Am Afraid
Whistleblowers act on conscience because they encounter something so horrifying, unconstitutional, wasteful, fraudulent, or mismanaged that they are overcome by the need to speak out. There is always a calculus of pain and gain (for others, if not oneself), but first thoughts are about what you’ve uncovered, the information you feel compelled to bring into the light, rather than your own circumstances.
In my case, I was ignorant of what would happen once I blew the whistle. I didn’t expect the Department of State to attack me. Snowden was different in this. He had the example of Bradley Manning and others to learn from. He clearly never doubted that the full weight of the U.S. government would fall on him.
He knew what to fear. He knew the Obama administration was determined to make any whistleblower pay, likely via yet another prosecution under the Espionage Act (with the potential for the death penalty). He also knew what his government had done since 9/11 without compunction: it had tortured and abused people to crush them; it had forced those it considered enemies into years of indefinite imprisonment, creating isolation cells for suspected terrorists and even a pre-trial whistleblower. It had murdered Americans without due process, and then, of course, there were the extraordinary renditions in which U.S. agents kidnapped perceived enemies and delivered them into the archipelago of post-9/11 horrors.
Sooner or later, if you’re a whistleblower, you get scared. It’s only human. On that flight, I imagine that Edward Snowden, for all his youthful confidence and bravado, was afraid. Would the Russians turn him over to Washington as part of some secret deal, maybe the sort of spy-for-spy trade that would harken back to the Cold War era?
Even if he made it out of Moscow, he couldn’t have doubted that the full resources of the NSA and other parts of the U.S. government would be turned on him. How many CIA case officers and Joint Special Operations Command types did the U.S. have undercover in Ecuador? After all, the dirty tricks had already started. The partner of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, who broke Snowden’s story, had his laptop stolen from their residence in Brazil. This happened only after Greenwald told him via Skype that he would send him an encrypted copy of Snowden’s documents.
In such moments, you try to push back the sense of paranoia that creeps into your mind when you realize that you are being monitored, followed, watched. It’s uncomfortable, scary. You have to wonder what your fate will be once the media grows bored with your story, or when whatever government has given you asylum changes its stance vis-a-vis the U.S. When the knock comes at the door, who will protect you? So who can doubt that fear made the journey with him?
Could I Go Back to the U.S.?
Amnesty International was on target when it stated that Snowden “could be at risk of ill-treatment if extradited to the U.S.” As if to prove them right, months, if not years, before any trial, Speaker of the House John Boehner called Snowden a “traitor”; Congressman Peter King called him a “defector”; and others were already demanding his execution. If that wasn’t enough, the abuse Bradley Manning suffered had already convinced Snowden that a fair trial and humane treatment were impossible dreams for a whistleblower of his sort. (He specifically cited Manning in his appeal for asylum to Ecuador.)
So on that flight he knew — as he had long known — that the natural desire to go back to the U.S. and make a stand was beyond foolhardy. Yet the urge to return to the country he loves must have been traveling with him, too. Perhaps on that flight he found himself grimly amused that, after years of running roughshod over international standards — Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, “enhanced interrogation techniques,” “black sites” — the U.S. had the nerve to chide Hong Kong, China, and Russia for not following the rule of law. He certainly knew that his own revelations about massive NSA cyber-spying on Hong Kong and China had deeply embarrassed the Obama administration. It had, after all, been blistering the Chinese for hacking into U.S. military and corporate computers. He himself had ensured that the Chinese wouldn’t turn him over, in the same way that history — decades of U.S. bullying in Latin America — ensured that he had a shot at a future in someplace like in Ecuador.
If he knew his extradition history, Snowden might also have thought about another time when Washington squirmed as a man it wanted left a friendly country for asylum. In 2004, the U.S. had chess great Bobby Fischer detained in Japan on charges that he had attended a 1992 match in Yugoslavia in violation of a U.S. trade ban. Others suggested that the real reason Washington was after him may have been Fischer’s post 9/11 statement: “It’s time to finish off the U.S. once and for all. This just shows what comes around, goes around.”
Fischer’s American passport was revoked just like Snowden’s. In the fashion of Hong Kong more recently, the Japanese released Fischer on an immigration technicality, and he flew to Iceland where he was granted citizenship. I was a diplomat in Japan at the time, and had a ringside seat for the negotiations. They must have paralleled what went on in Hong Kong: the appeals to treaty and international law; U.S. diplomats sounding like so many disappointed parents scolding a child; the pale hopes expressed for future good relations; the search for a sympathetic ear among local law enforcement agencies, immigration, and the foreign ministry — anybody, in fact — and finally, the desperate attempt to call in personal favors to buy more time for whatever Plan B might be. As with Snowden, in the end the U.S. stood by helplessly as its prey flew off.
How Will I Live Now?
At some point every whistleblower realizes his life will never be the same. For me, that meant losing my job of 24 years at the State Department. For Tom Drake, it meant financial ruin as the government tried to bankrupt him through endless litigation. For CIA agent John Kiriakou, it might have been the moment when, convicted of disclosing classified information to journalists, he said goodbye to his family and walked into Loretto Federal Correctional Institution.
Snowden could not have avoided anxiety about the future. Wherever he ended up, how would he live? What work would he do? He’s just turned 30 and faces, at best, a lifetime in some foreign country he’s never seen where he might not know the language or much of anything else.
So fear again, in a slightly different form. It never leaves you, not when you take on the world’s most powerful government. Would he ever see his family and friends again? Would they disown him, fearful of retaliation or affected by the smear campaign against him? Would his parents/best friend/girlfriend come to believe he was a traitor, a defector, a dangerous man? All whistleblowers find their personal relationships strained. Marriages are tested or broken, friends lost, children teased or bullied at school. I know from my own whistleblower’s journey that it’s an ugly penalty — encouraged by a government scorned — for acting on conscience.
If he had a deeper sense of history, Snowden might have found humor in the way the Obama administration chose to revoke his passport just before he left Hong Kong. After all, in the Cold War years, it was the “evil empire,” the Soviet Union, which was notorious for refusing to grant dissidents passports, while the U.S. regularly waived such requirements when they escaped to the West.
To deepen the irony of the moment, perhaps he was able to Google up the 2009-2011 figures on U.S. grants of asylum: 1,222 Russians, 9,493 Chinese, and 22 Ecuadorians, not including family members. Maybe he learned that, despite the tantrums U.S. officials threw regarding the international obligation of Russia to extradite him, the U.S. has recently refused Russian requests to extradite two of its citizens.
Snowden might have mused over then-candidate Obama’s explicit pledge to protect whistleblowers. “Often the best source of information about waste, fraud, and abuse in government,” Obama then said, “is an existing government employee committed to public integrity and willing to speak out. Such acts of courage and patriotism… should be encouraged rather than stifled as they have been during the Bush administration.” It might have been Snowden’s only laugh of the flight.
I Don’t Hate the U.S., I Love It Deeply, But Believe It Has Strayed
On that flight, Snowden took his love of America with him. It’s what all of us whistleblowers share: a love of country, if not necessarily its government, its military, or its intelligence services. We care what happens to us the people. That may have been his anchor on his unsettling journey. It would have been mine.
Remember, if we were working in the government in the first place, like every federal employee, soldier, and many government contractors, we had taken an oath that stated: “I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same.” We didn’t pledge fealty to the government or a president or party, only — as the Constitution makes clear — to the ultimate source of legitimacy in our nation, “the people.”
In an interview, Snowden indicated that he held off on making his disclosures for some time, in hopes that Barack Obama might look into the abyss and decide to become the bravest president in our history by reversing the country’s course. Only when Obama’s courage or intelligence failed was it time to become a whistleblower.
Some pundits claim that Snowden deserves nothing, because he didn’t go through “proper channels.” They couldn’t be more wrong and Snowden knows it. As with many of us whistleblowers facing a government acting in opposition to the Constitution, Snowden went through the channels that matter most: he used a free press to speak directly to his real boss, the American people.
In that sense, whatever the fear and anxiety about his life and his future, he must have felt easy with his actions. He had not betrayed his country, he had sought to inform it.
As with Bradley Manning, Obama administration officials are now claiming that Snowden has blood on his hands. Typically, Secretary of State John Kerry claimed: “People may die as a consequence to what this man did. It is possible that the United States would be attacked because terrorists may now know how to protect themselves in some way or another that they didn’t know before.” Snowden had heard the same slurs circling around Bradley Manning: that he had put people in danger. After the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to speak of the war on terror, there is irony too obvious to dwell upon in such charges.
Flying into the unknown, Snowden had to feel secure in having risked everything to show Americans how their government and the NSA bend or break laws to collect information on us in direct conflict with the Fourth Amendment’s protections. Amnesty International pointed out that blood-on-hands wasn’t at issue. “It appears he is being charged primarily for revealing U.S. and other governments’ unlawful actions that violate human rights.” Those whispers of support are something to take into the dark with you.
I Believe in Things Bigger Than Myself
Some of the charges against Snowden would make anyone pause: that, for instance, he did what he did for the thrill of publicity, out of narcissism, or for his own selfish reasons. To any of the members of the post-9/11 club of whistleblowers, the idea that we acted primarily for our own benefit has a theater of the absurd quality to it. Having been there, the negative sentiments expressed do not read or ring true.
Snowden himself laughed off the notion that he had acted for his own benefit. If he had wanted money, any number of foreign governments would have paid handsomely for the information he handed out to journalists for free and he would never have had to embark on that plane flight from Hong Kong. (No one ever called Aldrich Ames a whistleblower.) If he wanted fame, there were potential book contracts and film deals to be had.
No, it was conscience. I wouldn’t be surprised if somewhere along the line Snowden had read the Declaration of the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal: “Individuals have international duties which transcend the national obligations of obedience. Therefore individual citizens have the duty to violate domestic laws to prevent crimes against peace and humanity from occurring.”
Edward Snowden undoubtedly took comfort knowing that a growing group of Americans are outraged enough to resist a government turning against its own people. His thoughts were mirrored by Julian Assange, who said, “In the Obama administration’s attempt to crush these young whistleblowers with espionage charges, the U.S. government is taking on a generation, a young generation of people who find the mass violation of the rights of privacy and open process unacceptable. In taking on the generation, the Obama administration can only lose.” Snowden surely hoped President Obama would ask himself why he has pursued more than double the number of Espionage Act cases of all his presidential predecessors combined, and why almost all of those prosecutions failed.
On that flight, Edward Snowden must have reflected on what he had lost, including the high salary, the sweet life in Hawaii and Switzerland, the personal relationships, and the excitement of being on the inside, as well as the coolness of knowing tomorrow’s news today. He has already lost much that matters in an individual life, but not everything that matters. Sometimes — and any whistleblower comes to know this in a deep way — you have to believe that something other, more, deeper, better than yourself matters. You have to believe that one courageous act of conscience might make a difference in an America gone astray or simply that, matter or not, you did the right thing for your country.
Ghosts of Tom Joad, A Story of the #99Percent is a fictional look at the New Economy, building on The Grapes of Wrath to examine the new Working Poor, and the non-working rich, to conclude we are all now the ghosts of Tom Joad.
Ghosts of Tom Joad, A Story of the #99Percent is about growth, failure and redemption. Rich in allegory, it is funny and serious, Holden and Joe Dirt. Along the ride the story tackles bullying and suicide, first kisses and cunnilingus, and the protagonist’s struggle to overcome his father’s war that survived within him. It’s a question about how to still own something—your labor, your self-respect—you’d sold.
The main character narrates:
This used to be a country that talked about dreams with a straight face; it was never supposed to be the finite place we’re headed for. There were pieces of pieces of machinery from the abandoned factory left on the ground, too unimportant to sell off, too heavy to move, too bulky to bury, left scattered like clues from a lost civilization, the left droppings of our failure. Might as well been the bones of the men who worked there left. We were once the American Dream and now we just were what happened to it.
Ghosts of Tom Joad, A Story of the #99Percent is about regime change, the death of manufacturing, the deindustrialization of America, and a way of life that was lost alongside those jobs. Wages never were higher than in 1973 and fell as poverty rose in almost equal proportion. How did we go from the booming prosperity of the 1950s and 60s to the Rust Belt of the late 1970s in the course of only two or three generations?
A Personal Note
For my many dear friends in State Department Diplomatic Security, I am sorry to say that the book contains nothing of official concern, and so sadly you are not going to be involved in this project. You unsuccessfully tried to sabotage my first book, We Meant Well, and now I am giving you the space to ignore me and focus on cleaning up your own house.
For regular blog readers, Ghosts of Tom Joad, A Story of the #99Percent is the same story you may have previously known as The People on the Bus. There will be much more information to come, but trust me on this: This story will kick your ass.
Attempted suicide after a harsh interrogation? Hiring armed guys with criminal backgrounds? Senior officials having sex with subordinates, prostitutes and minors? Investigations into all of the above covered up or halted? That’s the news, not from Gitmo or some banana republic, but from your U.S. Department of State. Better get out the hand sanitizer, this blog post gets filthy fast.
A Sad Pattern of Sleaze from America’s Diplomats
Ever since the story broke on CBS News that the State Department covered up numerous allegations of wrong-doing to protect its public image, the details of said wrong-doing have been leaking out.
The reasons to care about this are many, and all the Hillary-love and attempts to just call it (just) a Republican witch hunt are a smokescreen. The obvious reason to care is that these people represent America abroad, and we need to ask what image they are projecting. In addition, such crimes and personal traits as alleged below make them vulnerable to blackmail, either by other members of the USG (promote me, give me a better assignment, or else…) or foreign intelligence (turn over the secrets or the photos go to the press). The fact that the organization apparently cannot police itself internally raises questions about competence (and the former SecState saying she was wholly ignorant of all this sludge is not a defense that actually makes her look presidential), and about what if anything it is accomplishing on America’s behalf.
Here’s a roundup to date:
— As a special shout-out to We Meant Well regulars, USA Today claims it has a memo detailing how Hillary Clinton’s chief of staff, Cheryl Mills, allegedly interceded in an investigation by Diplomatic Security into an affair between failed-Iraq ambassador-designate Brett McGurk and Wall Street Journal reporter Gina Chon.
— Cheryl Mills again: Mills, a longtime confidante of Hillary, reportedly played a key role in the State Department’s damage-control efforts on the Benghazi attack last year and was also named in accusations that department higher-ups quashed investigations into diplomats’ potential criminal activity. Cheryl Mills, who served in a dual capacity in recent years as general counsel and chief of staff to Clinton, was accused of attempting to stifle congressional access to a diplomat who held a senior post in Libya at the time of the attack.
— U.S. ambassador to Belgium Howard Gutman accused of soliciting “sexual favors from both prostitutes and minor children.” The ambassador “routinely ditched his protective security detail in order to solicit sexual favors from both prostitutes and minor children,” according to documents obtained by NBC News. State Department Undersecretary for Management Patrick Kennedy ordered an end to the investigation. “The ambassador’s protective detail and the embassy’s surveillance detection team [Note: A State Department team that conducts counterespionage surveillance, watching State Department officials to see if they are being watched by foreign spies] . . . were well aware of the behavior.”
The ambassador explained that sometimes he fights with his wife, needs air and he goes for a walk in the park because he likes it. The Atlantic reported that the park Gutman trolled, Parc Royal Warandepark, was well-known as a place to pick up adult homosexual and adolescent boy prostitutes.
A Belgian newspaper described the park: “I see young children go to adult waiting. Later, another adult waits, often to extort money from the victim after. I’ve been awakened by cries and my terrace, I saw someone being beaten. I had my legs were shaking. Time to call the police, I saw the victim painfully get up and go.”
— A State Department security official in Beirut “engaged in sexual assaults” with foreign nationals hired as embassy guards. State’s former regional security officer in Beirut, Chuck Lisenbee, allegedly sexually assaulted guards and was accused of similar assaults in Baghdad, Khartoum and Monrovia. Justine Sincavage, then-director of Diplomatic Security Service, called the allegations a “witch hunt” and gave agents “only three days” to investigate, and no charges were brought, according to USA Today.
— Members of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s security detail “engaged prostitutes while on official trips in foreign countries,” a problem the report says was “endemic.” Three members of Clinton’s security detail admitted to hiring prostitutes while on foreign trips and were given suspensions of one day. An investigator for Diplomatic Security launched an investigation into similar allegations against four other members of Clinton’s security detail but was ordered by Kimber Davidson, chief of the special investigations division, and Rob Kelty, his deputy, to shut down the investigation.
— The State Department has hired an “alarming number of law-enforcement agents with criminal or checkered backgrounds” because of a flawed hiring process, a stunning memo obtained by The New York Post reveals. “Too many people entering the [Diplomatic Security and Information Management] communities end up as subjects of [Special Investigation Division] investigations and HR adjudications, become Giglio-impaired and can play only limited roles thereafter,” according to the memo. “Giglio” refers to a US Supreme Court case dealing with jury notification that witnesses have made deals with the government to induce testimony. Some Diplomatic Security field offices “have major problems just waiting to be discovered,” the memo adds.
— In one case, aggressive interrogation techniques by Diplomatic Service agents “drove an employee to attempt suicide” when accused of raping his maid in Bangkok, Thailand, a memo suggests. “After “being told he would end up in a Thai prison, his wife would lose her job and his children would be pulled out of school, [the man] attempted suicide by jumping out of the 16th-story window at a hotel in Bangkok.” The guy lived, and was flown back to Washington for in-patient psychiatric care, where the agents continued to harass him. The rape charges were ultimately dropped.
— The same Diplomatic Security memo cites eight cases involving Diplomatic Security agents who resorted to “false, misleading or incomplete statements in reports,” “privacy-act violations” or “lack of objectivity” in investigations.
— Diplomatic security agents learned that James Combs, a senior diplomatic security agent in Baghdad and formerly of the DS Office of Professional Standards, was having an extramarital affair with a subordinate and had numerous affairs with men over a 30-year span without the knowledge of his wife. This presented “counterintelligence concerns,” but the investigation never reached a conclusion.
— A security contractor in Baghdad died of an overdose of methadone, which he was taking to counteract an addiction to the painkiller oxycodone. An underground drug ring may have been supplying the drugs, but State’s regional security officer did not allow a special investigations agent to pursue that possibility.
— In Miami, agents investigating a car accident by diplomatic security agent Evelyn Kittinger learned that she had been claiming full pay for several years “but had actually only worked very few hours.” State Department supervisors told the investigator to advise her to resign to avoid facing criminal charges and a major fine.
— Another report states that a top State Department official stymied investigators trying to get to the bottom of four killings in Honduras involving DEA agents and local police. The incident ended in the deaths of two pregnant women and two men last year, after Honduran national police opened fire from a State Department-owned helicopter on a small boat. Honduran police said drugs were involved, but locals said the boat was full of fishermen.
–ADDED: Sen. Charles Grassley is probing longtime Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin’s employment status, asking how she got a sweetheart deal to be a private six-figure consultant while still serving as a top State Department official. Abedin, one of Clinton’s most loyal aides, is of course married to former Rep. Anthony Weiner, who’s in the midst of a vigorous effort to beat off his own sexting scandal and become mayor of New York. Abedin hauled in as much as $350,000 in outside income on top of her $135,000 government salary. She was redesignated a “special government employee” who was able to haul in cash as a private contractor while still on the government dole.
–ADDED: Consulate General Naples’ Kerry Howard says she was bullied, harassed and forced to resign after she exposed Consul General Donald Moore’s alleged office trysts with subordinates and hookers. “When our diplomats disrespect the Italians by hiring and firing them because they have seen too much — or use them for ‘sex-ercise’ — we have to question why we have diplomats abroad at taxpayer expense,” said Howard. As a senior foreign-service officer, Moore makes as much as $179,700 a year. His first office romance supposedly occurred within days of his arrival in Italy, when he allegedly bedded a consulate employee, a single mom who fell in love with him. Moore was honored as “Consular Officer of the Year” (Barbara Watson Award) in 2005.
— A Foreign Service Officer, Michael Todd Sestak, 41, has been arrested and charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States and conspiracy to commit bribery and visa fraud. Dude was a senior visa official in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and supposedly pocketed some $2 million dollars for his work.
It appears that Foggy Bottom has sprung multiple leaks as hard-working folks grow tired of their bosses being allowed to do just about anything without punishment. What is going on? I don’t recall this much garbage coming into the daylight ever before. I assume it was happening all the same forever, but not this much in the public eye. I think it is time for Kerry to say something about at least trying to control his organization.
And of course someone should throw Under Secretary for Management Pat Kennedy out. He *may* be getting the message that in this internet age if you don’t give people a realistic internal avenue to fix things they’ll just go outside. That’s kinda what I did… So there is no doubt much more to come…
State Department Responds
The State Department spokesman said, “We hold all employees to the highest standards.” Spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki told reporters repeatedly this week that the accusations are “unsubstantiated.”
So that’s that apparently. No reporter has seen it useful to ask why for more than four and a half years, the State Department has had no appointed inspector general, the longest such vacancy of any federal agency. Or why, during his entire time in office, Obama has not nominated anyone to fill the slot. Or why during her four years as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did not demand an inspector general for her organization.
A spokesman said Clinton was completely unaware of any of the investigations mentioned in the Office of the Inspector General’s reports and memos, including the case involving her personal security detail allegedly soliciting prostitutes. “We learned of it from the media and don’t know anything beyond what’s been reported.”
It means nothing that a candidate who will no doubt cite her endless efforts on behalf of women everywhere remained unaware of sex crimes occurring, well, under her.
Opposition researchers and taxpayers alike, once again, Hillary Clinton’s defense is that she was totally unaware of what was going on in the organization she lead and managed, up to and including the actions of her own lifelong advisor and chief of staff, as well senior officials who reported directly to her. She’ll make a great president!
Oh wait– these are just “allegations.” They need to be investigated. Well, the problem of course is that one of the allegations is that powerful trolls inside State prevented or derailed any investigations, and indeed the over-arching allegation is that Diplomatic Security, charged with investigations, is riddled with political considerations that prevent full and transparent investigations. So that’s a pretty weak excuse to blow off everything said.
That said, maybe some are false. OK, but if even a small number of these serious accusations are true (rape, murder, minors) then even that suggests an organization operating without internal controls and the best defense its leader can come up with is her own ignorance. Not a good thing.
This piece originally appeared on the Huffington Post.
NSA surveillance is legal.
True, as was slavery in the U.S., the Holocaust under Nazi Germany, Apartheid in South Africa and so forth. Laws mean very little when they are manipulated for evil.
I’m not doing anything wrong, so why should I care? If you’re doing nothing wrong, then you’ve got nothing to hide!
See above. The definition of “wrong” can change very quickly.
I trust Obama on this.
All of your personal data is in the hands of the same people that run the TSA, the IRS and likely the DMV. Do you trust all of them all the time to never make mistakes or act on personal grudges or political biases? Do you believe none of them would ever sell your data for personal profit ever? In fact, the NSA is already sharing your data with, at minimum, British intelligence. That’s a foreign government that your American government is informing on you to, FYI. Also, the alleged leaker, Edward Snowden, worked for a private contracting company and had access to your data.
I really trust Obama on this.
OK, let’s stipulate that Obama will never do anything bad with the data. But once collected, your personal data exists forever, and is available to whomever in the future can access it, using whatever technologies come to exist. Trusting anyone with such power is foolish.
Well, there are checks and balances in the system to protect us.
See above. Also, the king of all checks and balances in this case, the Fourth Amendment, has been treated by the government like a used Kleenex. As for the Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Court (FISA), set up to review government requests for wiretapping, it approved all 1,789 requests submitted to it in 2012. The FBI made 15,229 National Security Letter requests in 2012 on Americans. None of those even require FISA rubber-stamping. And here’s DOJ trying to keep classified a court ruling that says it might have acted unconstitutionally.
More importantly, if all the NSA’s activities are legal, why not allow them to be tested openly and unambiguously in public, in front of the Supreme Court. After all, if you’ve done nothing wrong there is nothing to hide. Unfortunately, when Amnesty International tried to bring such a case before the Court, the case was denied because Amnesty could not prove it was subject to monitoring– that was a secret!– and thus was denied standing to even bring the suit.
Many people believe the surveillance violates both the Fourth Amendment protections against search, and the First Amendment protections on the right to peaceably assemble, online in this instance.
There are 300 million Americans, producing a gazillion emails and Skype chats and Instagrams every day. Nobody cares about my boring stuff.
Mining all that data is just a matter of how many computers are devoted to the task today, and using better technology in the future will make it even easier.
But the TV says they collect only “Metadata” so I’m safe.
Metadata is the index to all the content NSA is already sweeping up. NSA is able to record say 24 hours worth of Verizon phone calls easy enough. With the Metadata, they can then easily locate any particular call within that huge chunk of otherwise streaming data. Metadata can also provide geolocation information to track your physical movements, among other things. It is very important.
Distasteful as this all is, it is necessary to keep us safe. It’s for our own good.
The United States, upholding to our beautiful Bill of Rights, has survived (albeit on a sometimes bumpy road) two world wars, the Cold War and innumerable challenges without a massive, all-inclusive destruction of our civil rights. Keep in mind that the Founders created the Bill of Rights, point-by-point, specifically to address the abuses of power (look up the never-heard-from-again Third Amendment) they experienced under an oppressive British government. A bunch of angry jihadis, real and imagined, seems a poor reason to change that system. Prior to 9/11 we did not have a mass-scale terror act (by foreigners; American Citizen Timothy McVeigh pulled one off.) Since 9/11 we have not had a mass-scale terror attack. We can say 9/11 was a one-off, an aberration, and cannot be a justification for everything the government wishes to do. There is also the question of why, if the NSA is vacuuming up everything, and even sharing that collection abroad, this all needs to be kept secret from the American people. If it is for our own good, the government should be proud to tell us what they are doing for us, instead of being embarrassed when it leaks. If you’re not doing anything wrong then you’ve got nothing to hide, right?
Terrorist are everywhere.
Doubtful. No suicide bombers in shopping malls, no hijackings. How many Americans have died in the past twelve years due to terrorism in the U.S.? At the same time, despite all this intrusion into our lives and violations of the Fourth Amendment, the system completely missed the Boston bombers, two of the dumbest, least sophisticated bro’ terrorists in the world. Those two practiced no tradecraft at all. Maybe all this surveillance isn’t really about stopping terrorists and is more about generic spying on us all, using a fake argument of 100% security at the cost of 0% privacy? At the same time, we do have a problem with gun nuts committing mass shootings that have mowed down Americans in numbers far beyond terrorism since 9/11, but no one seems concerned about using tech to stop that. So much has been justified (torture, spying) by the so-called ticking time bomb scenario but there has never been shown an actual ticking time bomb scenario in real life.
Protecting America comes first.
But protecting what from what is the question. If instead of spending trillions and trillions of dollars on spying and domestic surveillance we spent that same money on repairing our infrastructure and improving our schools, wouldn’t that more directly create a stronger America?
I just don’t care.
Fine, enjoy your television. Just don’t be surprised when you’re woken from your deep sleep one night by a knock on the door.
BONUS: If you’re Edward Snowden, the alleged leaker, and you have some interest in not spending the rest of your life in a U.S. supermax prison, why oh why are you in Hong Kong? Hong Kong has an active extradition agreement with the U.S. Why are you not in Ecuador, Beijing, or maybe Iceland?
Snowden has the guts to do what the government does not have the guts to do: bring the NSA’s activities into daylight, for all to see. As a whistleblower myself, and meeting many others from Ellsberg to Drake, I know it takes enormous courage to do what Snowden did, and the willingness to give up everything– life, freedom, everything– for a good bigger than yourself. If that is not a definition of patriotism nothing else can be.
BONUS BONUS: My interview with Agency France Press on Snowden and whistleblowing.
The trial United States v. Pfc. Bradley Manning is being conducted in as much secrecy as the government thinks it can get away with. While the Center for Constitutional Rights has filed a petition requesting the Army Court of Criminal Appeals “to order the Judge to grant the public and press access to the government’s motion papers, the court’s own orders, and transcripts of proceedings,” none of these have been made.
Except of course for Alexa O’Brien, who has amazingly sat in the limited public access area and personally written down every word said that she was allowed to listen to, effectively creating a de facto transcript.
It is heavy legal reading, but worth your time simply to see what lengths the government is going to hang one man. Manning’s actions took place years ago, and whatever he released has been on the internet for years. Any punishment will thus have no real effect, except to commit revenge. So it is in 2013 America.
Deep inside the transcript is a list of upcoming government witnesses. As a public service, we present the names below as they appear, with Alexa’s comments. State Department people in BOLD that I added.
In the government’s 15 March 2013 classified filing Supplement to Prosecution Response to Scheduling Order of 39(a) Session from Closure and Motion to Close Courtroom for Specified Testimony, the government describes the classified information it moves to elicit in closed session for the following witnesses:
(1) Brigadier General Retired Robert Carr, DIA
(2) Colonel Julian Chestnut, DIA
(3) Classified Witness Entirety
(4) Ms. Elizabeth Dibble, Department of State, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs
(5) John Doe (Entire)
(6) Rear Admiral Kevin Donegan, Naval Warfare Integration, Pentagon
(7) Mr. John Feeley, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, Department of State
(8) Ambassador Patrick F. Kennedy, Under Secretary for Management, Department of State
[Diplomatic Security Services which partnered with the Departments of Defense and Justice in the investigation of Julian Assange, WikiLeaks, and Manning report to Ambassador Patrick Kennedy. Bureau of Intelligence and Research, which created the “August 2011 draft damage assessment” also reports to Kennedy. Kennedy is the Original Classification Authority for the US State Department cables. He also testified to Congress in late November, early December of 2010, and in March 2011 about WikiLeaks. He is also responsible for the WikiLeaks Mitigation Team at the Department of State.]
(9) Mr. John Kirchhofer, DIA
(10) Ambassador Michael Kozak, Department of State
(11) Classified Witness Entirety
(12) Mr. Daniel Lewis, DIA
(13) Mr. Randall Mcgrovey [sp.?], DIA
(14) Mr. James McCarl, Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO)
(15) Major General Kenneth F. McKenzie, USMC Headquarters Staff
(16) Mr. James Moore, Department of State
(17) Major General Michael [last name like, “Ma-guy”] McGuy, Joints Staff Pentagon
(18) SSA [Supervisory Special Agent] Alexander Pott [sp.], FBI
(19) Ambassador David Pearce, Department of State
(20) Mr. Adam Pearson, JIEDDO
(21) Mr. H. Dean Pittman, Department of State
(22) Classified Witness in Entirety
(23) Ambassador Stephen Seche, Department of State
(24) Mr. David Shaver, US Department of Treasury
(25) Mr. Catherine Stobel [sp.], CIA
(26) Ambassador Don Yamamoto, Department of State
(27) Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, Department of State; and
(28) Mr. Joseph Yun, Department of State
So Who Are These People?
Of course we have no idea whether any of the unnamed “classified” witnesses are from State, though it is doubtful.
Most/all of the State Department people listed head up various bureaus at State. These bureaus are the bureaucratic structures that handle say “East Asian Affairs” or “European Affairs.” Just guessing here, but the government is probably calling them to testify on behalf of their world region about all the horrible, terrible things that have happened since Manning released the documents. None of us will be allowed to hear what they have to say, but it would be safe to assume the court will listen to a lot of drama and smoke and LIONS and TIGERS and BEARS! horror-speak and very little substantive comment.
The most interesting State witness is Patrick F. Kennedy, the Under Secretary of State for Management. Kennedy keeps popping up on this blog, in the press and in front of Congress (he was the real point man on Benghazi.) He has been around State for a very long time, and basically runs the place administratively in Washington while various important people fly around the world doing their diplomacy.
Kennedy is officially the “original classifying authority,” the person at State who is titularly responsible for every classification decision. He may just offer up some boring testimony confirming that all the documents manning leaked labeled “Secret” were indeed classified Secret.
Or maybe not. Kennedy also oversaw State’s internal report on the Wikileaks impact and ran the working group that was supposed to identify people at risk because their names appeared in the State Department cables online. Notice how every weird, bad or naughty thing that State does somehow involves Pat Kennedy?It would be worth serious coin to listen in on Kennedy’s testimony but alas, because this is America now, the trial is largely off limits.
Bonus: Some earlier State Department personnel testimony about State’s internal processes surrounding the Wikileaks disclosures. Nothing earth shaking, but some interesting inside baseball stuff from Ops Center coordinator Rena Bitter about how the bureaucracy processed the new information. Short version: most of the effort was spent informing Department big shots of potentially embarrassing stuff the media caught. The Defense seems to be establishing that there was not much real-world impact from the disclosures.
Eric Holder has told us that he “recused” himself from decisions the organization he heads made to help destroy freedom of the press in the United States by seizing the phone records of the Associated Press. He simply said that he was not involved, so please address your concerns somewhere else. The President, Holder’s boss, made similar remarks. The government did things to belittle the Constitution and neither the President nor the Attorney General has much concern or connection with it all. Things happen.
The pattern is not unique to the phone records, nor to even the nobody-is-responsible actions of the IRS against organizations seeking non-profit status whose political beliefs ran counter to the Obama Administration. Indeed, even as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton claimed that she had no idea of what was going on underneath her in the organization vis-vis Libya, and that counted as a defense. Hell, we fire football coaches when the team loses, even though they don’t punt, pass or kick themselves. Leaders are responsible for what their organizations do. That’s what the job is, not just photo-ops and world travel.
But for all the recent “-gates” and scandals, let’s take a moment to remember the uber-scandal of the Obama Administration: it’s claim that it may legally kill Americans by drone, with no due process.
Historians of the future, if they are not imprisoned for saying so, will trace the end of America’s democratic experiment to the fearful days immediately after 9/11, what Bruce Springsteen called the days of the empty sky, when frightened, small men named Bush and Cheney made the first decisions to abandon the Constitution in the name of freedom and created a new version of the security state with the Patriot Act, Guantanamo, secret prisons and sanctioned torture by the US government. They proceeded carefully, making sure that lawyers in their employ sanctioned each dark act, much as kings in old Europe used the church to justify their own actions.
Those same historians will remark from exile on the irony that such horrendous policies were not only upheld by Obama, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and professor of Constitutional law, but added to until we came to the place we sadly occupy today: the Attorney General of the United States, Eric Holder, publicly stating that the American Government may murder one of its own citizens when it wishes to do so, and that the requirements of due process enshrined in the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment, itself drawn from the Magna Carta that was the first reflowering of basic human rights since the Greeks, can be satisfied simply by a decision by that same President.
We will thus be remembered as the ones who gave up. No more clever wordplay (enhanced interrogations, “patriot” act, targeted killing, kinetic operations) but a simple declaration that the US Government will kill its own citizens when it wishes to, via a secret process we, and our victims, are not allowed to know or contest.
Brevity in Our Freedom
Like most of the Bill of Rights, the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution is beautiful in its brevity and clarity. When you are saying something true, pure, clean and right, you often do not need many words: “…nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”
There are no footnotes in the Fifth Amendment, no caveats, no secret memos, no exceptions for war, terrorism, mass rape, creation of concentration camps, acts of genocide, child torture or any evil. Those things are unnecessary, because in the beauty of what Lincoln offered to his audience as “a government of the people, by the people, for the people,” the government would be made up of us, the purpose of government was to serve us, and the government would be beholden to us. Such a government would be incapable of killing its own citizens without care and debate and open trial.
With the excuse all tyrants proclaim, protecting the nation, on or about September 30, 2011 a US drone fired a missile in Yemen and killed American Citizen Anwar al Awlaki, born in the United States and tragically devoted to al Qaeda. A few days later the US also killed al Zawaki’s 16 year old American Citizen son. The US had shot at the elder al Awlaki before, on May 7, 2011 under Obama’s orders, and under the Bush administration. Before the US government killed his son, attorneys for al Awlaki’s father tried to persuade a US District Court to issue an injunction preventing the government killing of al Awlaki. A judge dismissed the case, ruling the father did not have standing to sue. This was the first time in our nation’s history that a father sought to sue to prevent the government from extra-legally killing his son. The judge in the case surrendered to his post-9/11 fear and wrote that it was up to the elected branches of government, not the courts, to determine whether the United States has the authority to murder its own citizens by decree.
Fear Shaped by Lies to Compel Compliance
Attorney General Holder said things no honest man would ever believe would be said by the highest law officer in the United States.
Holder said “that a careful and thorough executive branch review of the facts in a case amounts to ‘due process’ and that the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment protection against depriving a citizen of his or her life without due process of law does not mandate a ‘judicial process.’”
Holder thus also declaimed that the victim also has no right to a defense, no right to speak on his behalf, no right to examine and refute the evidence against him and no right even to know his life will be taken under the decision of a few men in Washington. Indeed, Holder made clear that the government’s decision to kill overshadowed the right to self-defense in saying “An individual’s interest in making sure that the government does not target him erroneously could not be more significant. Yet it is imperative for the government to counter threats posed by senior operational leaders of al Qaeda, and to protect the innocent people whose lives could be lost in their attacks.”
Holder said he rejected any attempt to label such operations assassinations, invoking the same airbrush of lawfulness that fueled the Inquisition, the Salem Witch Trials and the Holocaust. “Assassinations are unlawful killings. The US government’s use of lethal force in self-defense against a leader of al-Qaeda or an associated force who presents an imminent threat of violent attack would not be unlawful.” In other words, if the President does it, it is no illegal.
Historians will look back on us as the people of America who gave up on its experiment with unalienable rights, rights that are natural, not given, rights independent of governments, what our Declaration explained to an unsure forming nation as “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
America was different. We became a country not based on a common language, or religion or anything else except adherence to a common set of beliefs, our Bill of Rights. When you take that away, there is nothing left in common, and dammit Eric Holder and Barack Obama know that.
The saddest part of a very sad day: the majority of Americans– the consent of the governed– seemingly do not care what Holder said, and are even now bleating on internet forums and likely in comments below to this article about the need to kill more, adding terrified, empty justifications to Holder’s clever statements. We did not have our freedom taken from us, we gave it away. That is real terror.
At an April 30 briefing regarding press reports that the State Department is seeking to intimidate or punish employees planning on blowing the whistle on Department incompetence surrounding the deaths at the Benghazi Consulate, deputy spokesman Patrick Ventrell said:
The State Department would never tolerate or sanction retaliation against whistleblowers on any issue, including this one. That’s an obligation we take very seriously.
To which I reply: Poppycock.
And by the way, any of you potential State Department whistleblowers need some advice, it is info(at)wemeantwell.com
SecState John Kerry warned that “the State Department will have to stop humanitarian aid to millions of people and delay efforts to ramp up diplomatic security abroad after the attack in Benghazi.”
Kerry also warned that the State Department might not be able to effectively provide emergency services to Americans in trouble abroad, to properly vet visa applications, and or issue passports to Americans in a timely manner. “I hope that Congress can act to avoid these severe, across-the-board cuts to programs that further U.S. national security, advance America’s economic interests, protect Americans at home and abroad, and deliver results for the American people,” Kerry wrote.
The award provides for grass cutting, edging, trimming, weeding, and other gardening and landscaping services. It will also mandate the planting of 960 violas, tulips, and begonias. The frighteningly-specific contract says that “any pruning of trees exceeding 2.5 m in height is excluded from the contract. The Contractor shall maintain the height of grass between 4 and 6 centimeters.”
As a matter of simple comparison, the money your State Department spends in one year on gardening for one embassy in Belgium would fund fourteen public school teachers under the Teach for America program.
Gentle readers, allow me a moment of angry self-congratulation. I’ll be back to normal with the next posting. This article originally appeared on Foreign Policy.
I was right. When they print the next edition of my book, I’m going to change the title from We Meant Well to I Told You So.
I spent a year in Iraq as a U.S. Foreign Service officer, leading two of the then-vaunted Provincial Reconstruction Teams. We were charged with nothing less than winning the war for America by rebuilding Iraq’s infrastructure, creating a functioning democracy and stable economy, and thus ensuring Iraq would be an ally of the United States in the war on terror. As it became more and more apparent to me over the course of my time in Iraq that we were accomplishing none of those goals (while simultaneously wasting incredible amounts of money), I was compelled to tell the American people what I saw. It would be both a lesson for history and a warning about similar efforts already under way in Afghanistan. I wrote a book and lost my career of 24 years at the State Department as a result.
What if Iraq Turns Around?
When, in 2010, I sent the first draft of We Meant Well, about the waste, fraud, mismanagement, and utter stupidity surrounding the Iraq reconstruction efforts, to my editor, I remember her saying, “You know the book itself won’t come out for close to a year, and if things turn around in Iraq in the meantime, that will make you look wrong.” I told her not to worry.
When the book did come out in September 2011, most of the interviewers I met with threw in skeptical comments: “Well, maybe it will work out like in Japan,” they said, or “It’s too early to tell.” When I met with staffers from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2012, they said, “We’d like to believe you, but everything that State tells us contradicts your thesis that the money spent was just a big waste.” Foreign Policy felt the need to run an angry rebuttal (“The greatest assets in many respects were our ‘clients,’ the Iraqi ministers, provincial officials, and local residents who were active and engaged at every level”) to an excerpt from my book.
Failure Made Official
Well, now it’s official. Although it took 10 years for the report to come out, according to the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR), “$60 billion in American taxpayer funds later, Iraq is still so unstable and broken that even its leaders question whether U.S. efforts to rebuild the war-torn nation were worth the cost.”
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said “that $55 billion could have brought great change in Iraq,” but the positive effects of those funds were too often “lost.”
Iraqi parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, the country’s top Sunni official, told auditors that the rebuilding efforts did not “achieve the purpose for which it was launched. Rather, it had unfavorable outcomes in general.”
There “was usually a Plan A but never a Plan B,” said Kurdish official Qubad Talabani, son of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.
Shiite, Sunni, Kurd. Trust me, about the only thing everybody agrees on is the United States spent a bundle of money. According to the Associated Press, to date the United States has spent more than $60 billion in reconstruction grants on Iraq. That works out to about $15 million a day. Overall, including all military and diplomatic costs and other aid, the United States has spent at least $767 billion since the U.S.-led invasion began. Some funds are still being spent on ongoing projects.
I Told You So
I hate to say I told you so — but I told you so. SIGIR, if you’re out there, perhaps it would have been better to agree to meet with me back in 2009. I could have saved you some time and money. SIGIR, like everything else associated with the Iraq reconstruction, was expensive. The inspectors cost taxpayers $16 million this year, a bargain compared with the $30 million a year they used up during the war era itself.
We all know that we study history to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, so with the dreadful example of Iraq now clear, we can draw from it to avoid repeating the errors in Afghanistan. In fact, speaking of book titles, my volume on the Iraq failures was originally supposed to be called Lessons for Afghanistan from the Reconstruction of Iraq, before the editor thankfully nudged me toward the snarkier We Meant Well.
What Went Right?
And yet … and yet … only the day before the SIGIR report on Iraq was issued, this magazine ran a long piece by Peter Bergen titled “What Went Right.” The piece talks about al Qaeda on the run from Afghanistan (without mentioning how well the franchises in Iraq and North Africa are doing), cites gains in cell-phone usage (without discussing how much is due to billions of U.S. aid dollars dumped on the local markets), talks about how the Taliban have been vanquished (without understanding an insurgency avoids head-on clashes just before the other guys pack up and go home), and describes aspects of Kabul as “thriving” (based most likely on a conversation with some taxi driver). Incredulously, Bergen writes, “U.S. and other NATO forces have taken care to ensure that their soldiers do not contribute to the civilian death toll. Indeed, some American cities are today more violent than Afghanistan. In New Orleans, residents are now around six times more likely to be murdered than Afghan civilians are to be killed in the war” and concludes, “Maybe, not too long from now, a new generation of guidebooks will again be raving about the joys of springtime in the Hindu Kush.”
Quite sadly, one only need change “Afghanistan” to “Iraq” in the article, and it could have been published in 2010, right down to the last line about tourists: The United States spent millions of dollars building tourist infrastructure around Iraq’s ancient archaeological sites for naught. It idiotically helped sponsor the “Iraq Tourism Week” expo in Baghdad in 2009.
Meanwhile, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has been issuing its own reports, saying among other things that “a significant portion” of the U.S. government’s $400 million investment in large infrastructure projects in fiscal year 2011 alone may have been wasted because of poor planning. In an episode that could have come straight out of my book — except that it took place years later in Afghanistan — SIGAR released an inspection of the Imam Sahib Border Police company headquarters in Kunduz province, Afghanistan. The $7.3 million facility was built to hold 175 people, “yet only 12 were on site and no one was aware of any plans to move additional personnel to the facility. The personnel did not have keys to many of the buildings and most of the facility appeared to be unused. Additionally, there is no contract or plan to train personnel in the operations and maintenance of the facility raising questions about its sustainability.” There are many, many more examples.
History Repeats Itself
In asking why such mistakes are being repeated, one need only look at the people involved: A large percentage of the State Department personnel on the ground in Afghanistan are veterans of the Iraq reconstruction, as are the soldiers reconstructing alongside them. The same two U.S. Ambassadors (Zalmay Khalilzad and Ryan Crocker) ran both embassies at different times. Most of the lame and unskilled hirelings who worked with me in Iraq moved over to identical roles in Afghanistan, and even one of my old bosses found work in Afghanistan after retirement from State. On the macro level, the same massive contracting firms and security mercenaries continue to make bank. The fat paychecks help keep everyone looking the other way about “progress” and thus on-message.
Despite SIGAR finding that “delays, cost overruns, and poor construction of infrastructure projects … resulted in lost opportunities and in incalculable waste,” the United States and its allies have already committed to $16 billion in economic aid to Afghanistan over the next four years. Costs for maintaining Afghan security forces are expected to come to over $4 billion per year.
There is a pop-psychology definition of mental illness that applies here: doing the same thing over and over expecting different results. And there’s something grim about this. So while it feels good today to know I was right — the reconstruction of Iraq I participated in is now unambiguously acknowledged as the failure I said it was years ago — it still feels bad knowing someone else will need to write an article just like this in a few years, when we tally up the losses in Afghanistan.
This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.com
I was there. And “there” was nowhere. And nowhere was the place to be if you wanted to see the signs of end times for the American Empire up close. It was the place to be if you wanted to see the madness — and oh yes, it was madness — not filtered through a complacent and sleepy media that made Washington’s war policy seem, if not sensible, at least sane and serious enough. I stood at Ground Zero of what was intended to be the new centerpiece for a Pax Americana in the Greater Middle East.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the invasion of Iraq turned out to be a joke. Not for the Iraqis, of course, and not for American soldiers, and not the ha-ha sort of joke either. And here’s the saddest truth of all: on March 20th as we mark the 10th anniversary of the invasion from hell, we still don’t get it. In case you want to jump to the punch line, though, it’s this: by invading Iraq, the U.S. did more to destabilize the Middle East than we could possibly have imagined at the time. And we — and so many others — will pay the price for it for a long, long time.
The Madness of King George
It’s easy to forget just how normal the madness looked back then. By 2009, when I arrived in Iraq, we were already at the last-gasp moment when it came to salvaging something from what may yet be seen as the single worst foreign policy decision in American history. It was then that, as a State Department officer assigned to lead two provincial reconstruction teams in eastern Iraq, I first walked into the chicken processing plant in the middle of nowhere.
By then, the U.S. “reconstruction” plan for that country was drowning in rivers of money foolishly spent. As the centerpiece for those American efforts — at least after Plan A, that our invading troops would be greeted with flowers and sweets as liberators, crashed and burned — we had managed to reconstruct nothing of significance. First conceived as a Marshall Plan for the New American Century, six long years later it had devolved into farce.
In my act of the play, the U.S. spent some $2.2 million dollars to build a huge facility in the boondocks. Ignoring the stark reality that Iraqis had raised and sold chickens locally for some 2,000 years, the U.S. decided to finance the construction of a central processing facility, have the Iraqis running the plant purchase local chickens, pluck them and slice them up with complex machinery brought in from Chicago, package the breasts and wings in plastic wrap, and then truck it all to local grocery stores. Perhaps it was the desert heat, but this made sense at the time, and the plan was supported by the Army, the State Department, and the White House.
Elegant in conception, at least to us, it failed to account for a few simple things, like a lack of regular electricity, or logistics systems to bring the chickens to and from the plant, or working capital, or… um… grocery stores. As a result, the gleaming $2.2 million plant processed no chickens. To use a few of the catchwords of that moment, it transformed nothing, empowered no one, stabilized and economically uplifted not a single Iraqi. It just sat there empty, dark, and unused in the middle of the desert. Like the chickens, we were plucked.
In keeping with the madness of the times, however, the simple fact that the plant failed to meet any of its real-world goals did not mean the project wasn’t a success. In fact, the factory was a hit with the U.S. media. After all, for every propaganda-driven visit to the plant, my group stocked the place with hastily purchased chickens, geared up the machinery, and put on a dog-and-pony, er, chicken-and-rooster, show.
In the dark humor of that moment, we christened the place the Potemkin Chicken Factory. In between media and VIP visits, it sat in the dark, only to rise with the rooster’s cry each morning some camera crew came out for a visit. Our factory was thus considered a great success. Robert Ford, then at the Baghdad Embassy and now America’s rugged shadow ambassador to Syria, said his visit was the best day out he enjoyed in Iraq. General Ray Odierno, then commanding all U.S. forces in Iraq, sent bloggers and camp followers to view the victory project. Some of the propaganda, which proclaimed that “teaching Iraqis methods to flourish on their own gives them the ability to provide their own stability without needing to rely on Americans,” is still online (including this charming image of American-Iraqi mentorship, a particular favorite of mine).
We weren’t stupid, mind you. In fact, we all felt smart and clever enough to learn to look the other way. The chicken plant was a funny story at first, a kind of insider’s joke you all think you know the punch line to. Hey, we wasted some money, but $2.2 million was a small amount in a war whose costs will someday be toted up in the trillions. Really, at the end of the day, what was the harm?
The harm was this: we wanted to leave Iraq (and Afghanistan) stable to advance American goals. We did so by spending our time and money on obviously pointless things, while most Iraqis lacked access to clean water, regular electricity, and medical or hospital care. Another State Department official in Iraq wrote in his weekly summary to me, “At our project ribbon-cuttings we are typically greeted now with a cursory ‘thank you,’ followed by a long list of crushing needs for essential services such as water and power.” How could we help stabilize Iraq when we acted like buffoons? As one Iraqi told me, “It is like I am standing naked in a room with a big hat on my head. Everyone comes in and helps put flowers and ribbons on my hat, but no one seems to notice that I am naked.”
By 2009, of course, it should all have been so obvious. We were no longer inside the neocon dream of unrivaled global superpowerdom, just mired in what happened to it. We were a chicken factory in the desert that no one wanted.
Time Travel to 2003
Anniversaries are times for reflection, in part because it’s often only with hindsight that we recognize the most significant moments in our lives. On the other hand, on anniversaries it’s often hard to remember what it was really like back when it all began. Amid the chaos of the Middle East today, it’s easy, for instance, to forget what things looked like as 2003 began. Afghanistan, it appeared, had been invaded and occupied quickly and cleanly, in a way the Soviets (the British, the ancient Greeks…) could never have dreamed of. Iran was frightened, seeing the mighty American military on its eastern border and soon to be on the western one as well, and was ready to deal. Syria was controlled by the stable thuggery of Bashar al-Assad and relations were so good that the U.S. was rendering terror suspects to his secret prisons for torture.
Most of the rest of the Middle East was tucked in for a long sleep with dictators reliable enough to maintain stability. Libya was an exception, though predictions were that before too long Muammar Qaddafi would make some sort of deal. (He did.) All that was needed was a quick slash into Iraq to establish a permanent American military presence in the heart of Mesopotamia. Our future garrisons there could obviously oversee things, providing the necessary muscle to swat down any future destabilizing elements. It all made so much sense to the neocon visionaries of the early Bush years. The only thing that Washington couldn’t imagine was this: that the primary destabilizing element would be us.
Indeed, its mighty plan was disintegrating even as it was being dreamed up. In their lust for everything on no terms but their own, the Bush team missed a diplomatic opportunity with Iran that might have rendered today’s saber rattling unnecessary, even as Afghanistan fell apart and Iraq imploded. As part of the breakdown, desperate men, blindsided by history, turned up the volume on desperate measures: torture, secret gulags, rendition, drone killings, extra-constitutional actions at home. The sleaziest of deals were cut to try to salvage something, including ignoring the A.Q. Khan network of Pakistani nuclear proliferation in return for a cheesy Condi Rice-Qaddafi photo-op rapprochement in Libya.
Inside Iraq, the forces of Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict had been unleashed by the U.S. invasion. That, in turn, was creating the conditions for a proxy war between the U.S. and Iran, similar to the growing proxy war between Israel and Iran inside Lebanon (where another destabilizing event, the U.S.-sanctioned Israeli invasion of 2006, followed in hand). None of this has ever ended. Today, in fact, that proxy war has simply found a fresh host, Syria, with multiple powers using “humanitarian aid” to push and shove their Sunni and Shia avatars around.
Staggering neocon expectations, Iran emerged from the U.S. decade in Iraq economically more powerful, with sanctions-busting trade between the two neighbors now valued at some $5 billion a year and still growing. In that decade, the U.S. also managed to remove one of Iran’s strategic counterbalances, Saddam Hussein, replacing him with a government run by Nouri al-Malaki, who had once found asylum in Tehran.
Meanwhile, Turkey is now engaged in an open war with the Kurds of northern Iraq. Turkey is, of course, part of NATO, so imagine the U.S. government sitting by silently while Germany bombed Poland. To complete the circle, Iraq’s prime minister recently warned that a victory for Syria’s rebels will spark sectarian wars in his own country and will create a new haven for al-Qaeda which would further destabilize the region.
Meanwhile, militarily burnt out, economically reeling from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and lacking any moral standing in the Middle East post-Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, the U.S. sat on its hands as the regional spark that came to be called the Arab Spring flickered out, to be replaced by yet more destabilization across the region. And even that hasn’t stopped Washington from pursuing the latest version of the (now-nameless) global war on terror into ever-newer regions in need of destabilization.
Having noted the ease with which a numbed American public patriotically looked the other way while our wars followed their particular paths to hell, our leaders no longer blink at the thought of sending American drones and special operations forces ever farther afield, most notably ever deeper into Africa, creating from the ashes of Iraq a frontier version of the state of perpetual war George Orwell once imagined for his dystopian novel 1984. And don’t doubt for a second that there is a direct path from the invasion of 2003 and that chicken plant to the dangerous and chaotic place that today passes for our American world.
On this 10th anniversary of the Iraq War, Iraq itself remains, by any measure, a dangerous and unstable place. Even the usually sunny Department of State advises American travelers to Iraq that U.S. citizens “remain at risk for kidnapping… [as] numerous insurgent groups, including Al Qaida, remain active…” and notes that “State Department guidance to U.S. businesses in Iraq advises the use of Protective Security Details.”
In the bigger picture, the world is also a far more dangerous place than it was in 2003. Indeed, for the State Department, which sent me to Iraq to witness the follies of empire, the world has become ever more daunting. In 2003, at that infamous “mission accomplished” moment, only Afghanistan was on the list of overseas embassies that were considered “extreme danger posts.” Soon enough, however, Iraq and Pakistan were added. Today, Yemen and Libya, once boring but secure outposts for State’s officials, now fall into the same category.
Other places once considered safe for diplomats and their families such as Syria and Mali have been evacuated and have no American diplomatic presence at all. Even sleepy Tunisia, once calm enough that the State Department had its Arabic language school there, is now on reduced staff with no diplomatic family members resident. Egypt teeters.
The Iranian leadership watched carefully as the American imperial version of Iraq collapsed, concluded that Washington was a paper tiger, backed away from initial offers to talk over contested issues, and instead (at least for a while) doubled-down on achieving nuclear breakout capacity, aided by the past work of that same A.Q. Khan network. North Korea, another A.Q. Khan beneficiary, followed the same pivot ever farther from Washington, while it became a genuine nuclear power. Its neighbor China pursued its own path of economic dominance, while helping to “pay” for the Iraq War by becoming the number-one holder of U.S. debt among foreign governments. It now owns more than 21% of the U.S. debt held overseas.
And don’t put away the joke book just yet. Subbing as apologist-in-chief for an absent George W. Bush and the top officials of his administration on this 10th anniversary, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair recently reminded us that there is more on the horizon. Conceding that he had “long since given up trying to persuade people Iraq was the right decision,” Blair added that new crises are looming. “You’ve got one in Syria right now, you’ve got one in Iran to come,” he said. “We are in the middle of this struggle, it is going to take a generation, it is going to be very arduous and difficult. But I think we are making a mistake, a profound error, if we think we can stay out of that struggle.”
Think of his comment as a warning. Having somehow turned much of Islam into a foe, Washington has essentially assured itself of never-ending crises that it stands no chance whatsoever of winning. In this sense, Iraq was not an aberration, but the historic zenith and nadir for a way of thinking that is only now slowing waning. For decades to come, the U.S. will have a big enough military to ensure that our decline is slow, bloody, ugly, and reluctant, if inevitable. One day, however, even the drones will have to land.
And so, happy 10th anniversary, Iraq War! A decade after the invasion, a chaotic and unstable Middle East is the unfinished legacy of our invasion. I guess the joke is on us after all, though no one is laughing.
McGurk Gets a Job?
Such is the story of the State Department and Brett McGurk. Having failed to appoint him U.S. Ambassador to Iraq (due to McGurk’s overall incompetence and sexual dalliance), the State Department simply gave him a sequester-proof salary and a made-up desk job and waited a bit before, now, apparently anointing him as the new Deputy Assistant Secretary (DAS) of State for both Iraq and Iran. The DAS job does not require Senate confirmation, the thing that tripped up McGurk the last time around.
The Back Channel tells us that McGurk will likely be tapped as the next State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq and Iran. The State Department plans to combine the two offices because, well, McGurk likely can’t tell the difference between the two countries anyway, damn foreigners, and because there isn’t anything really that important going on in either place to justify its own DAS. The blog calls the appointment a “done deal.”
Where to Begin?
McGurk spent a good portion of the last ten years working for the U.S. Government in Iraq, advising several ambassadors and leading the failed negotiations to secure permanent U.S. bases there. You’d kinda think having that on your resume– I am partially responsible for everything that happened in Iraq for the last ten years, including America’s tail-between-its-legs retreat— might make it hard to get another job running Iraq policy. Who goes out of their way to hire the coach that lost most of his games?
The other side of McGurk’s failed attempt at being ambassador was his questionable personal life, which in turn raised issues of judgement, decorum, discretion, and class. Like with Petraeus, it was sexual misconduct that brought the real questions of competence and ability to light.
Six members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the time called on Obama to withdraw McGurk’s nomination, meaning that as DAS McGurk already enjoys a warm relationship with his key committee on the Hill. His appointment after the Senate nixed him will also no doubt enhance the State Department’s overall reputation during the budget process. And of course being the DAS and having everyone in your office know your sleazy backstory ensures you will be taken seriously.
As well-documented across the internet, in addition to emails trading sex for access (a two way deal between McGurk and the then-Wall Street Journal’s Gina Chon [she resigned), we add another item, accusations of a McGurk sex tape from Iraq. The giver of the taped sex was a State Department Foreign Service Officer, gratefully female, inevitably Public Diplomacy.
Elsewhere, the Washington Post reported that McGurk invited his then-mistress Gina Chon to be a guest lecturer at a Harvard course he taught in 2009. Harvard students attending the class had no idea that their teacher was romantically involved with Chon, who spoke to them about her experience
reporting getting inside info by sleeping with her sources in Iraq, according to a student who attended.
State Department at Work
Only the Department of State today stands proudly alone declaring that no one else in the entire U.S. government, or the entire United States for that matter, is qualified to serve as
ambassador to Iraq Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for both Iraq and Iran but a guy who has done nothing in his 39 years of life but be politically appointed to Iraq jobs (none earned, elected or competitively chosen, just appointed), making a selfish hash out of even that.
McGurk is Not the Exception But the Rule
McGurk’s supporters cite his years of experience in Iraq. But would you choose a heart surgeon who lost most of his patients on the operating table simply because he had been doing it for ten years? Experience is merely time served; competence requires judgement to be exercised.
The issue of McGurk, however, is sadly not one in isolation at Foggy Bottom. While it is clear, ten years after, that the U.S. efforts in Iraq in general and the State Department-led reconstruction in the specific were almost complete failures, let’s look at (as an example) the chain of command that oversaw my own Provincial Reconstruction Teams’ efforts and see what happened to them all since:
Me: Blacklisted by State
My Boss: Now an Army contractor advising on reconstruction in Afghanistan
His Boss (Not McGurk): A Deputy Assistant Secretary of State
That Guy’s Boss: Appointed an Ambassador
Her Boss: Appointed an Ambassador
Ambassador to Iraq at the Time: Dean of the Korbel School of Diplomacy in Colorado
His boss, Secretary Clinton: Waiting to become president in 2016.
And that’s the saddest news of all: while the McGurk saga is perhaps a more extreme instance, and certainly more fun with its tawdry sex aspect than mere bureaucratic failure, the upward movement of failed people at the State Department exists almost as a policy. That policy, spelled out in a few words, is simple: people are rewarded for longevity at best, for keeping their mouths shut at worst, and competence is never really part of the calculus. While there are certainly competent people in senior positions within the State Department, they all had to primarily pass the tests of loyalty and time-served first.
John Kerry? Yes, it’s your legacy calling, saying it has gone into hiding for its own protection…
In his State of the Union Address, the president said that the federal minimum wage should be raised to nine dollars an hour. He said also that a person holding down a full-time job should not have to live in poverty in a country like America. I could not agree more; for the last few months I’ve lived like the people the president referred to and it is not a pretty picture.
As research for my new book, I have been working in the minimum wage economy and trying to live on the money I make. The situation is much, much worse than the president described in his Address, a tragedy for our society. Here’s what it looks like.
Once Upon A Time
The last time I worked for minimum wage was in a small store in my Ohio hometown, almost a right of passage in high school, pulling in about four bucks an hour stocking shelves alongside my friends. Our girlfriends ran the registers, our moms and dads shopped in the store and a good story about a date could get you a night off from the sympathetic manager. When someone graduated, the manager would hire one of the workers’ friends and the cycle continued.
The New World
At age 53 I expected to be quizzed about why I was looking for minimum wage work in a big box retail store. No one cared; instead, the application process included a background and credit check, along with a drug test. Any of those anonymous agencies could have vetoed my employment and I’d never even know about it. Most places that don’t pay much seem really concerned that their workers are drug-free. I’m not sure why this is, because you can be a banker or lawyer and get through the day higher than angels on a cloud. Regardless, I did what I had to in front of another person, handing him the cup. He gave me one of those universal signs of the underemployed I now recognize, a “we’re all in it, what’re ya gonna do” look, just a little upward flick of his eyes.
After hiring I watched a video on theft. The interesting thing was that in addition to warning us about stealing candy for breaks, we were not to steal time. The store paid us for our time and so even if we snuck out for a breath of air or flipped through a magazine, we were stealing time. Would we have liked someone from the store to come to our home (or, I guess, day-rate motel room, car back seat, shelter bunk or cardboard box under a bridge) and have them do whatever the heck the store would want from us there?
New break policy: zero to five and a half hour shift, no break. New schedule policy: all shifts reduced to five and a half hours or less. Somebody said it was illegal not to give us breaks, but what can you do, call the cops like it was a real crime? It turns out in fact that in my state employers are not required to grant breaks to anyone over age 16; in some places minimum wage workers do eight and nine hours shifts without a meal or a chance to get off their feet for a few minutes. No one gets sick leave, holidays or accrues vacation time. No health benefits.
Eight hours on your feet is tough, but what about sixteen? At age 53 I was the third oldest minimum wage worker at the store. With one or two exceptions, everyone on the schedule worked multiple jobs, often in adjacent stores in the same strip mall. They have to: even if the store gave us 40 hours a week for a year (a big, big if, as most places cap workers at 39 hours to avoid them becoming “full time” and possibly qualifying for benefits. In my case, as work expands and contracts, I’ve been scheduled for as few as seven hours a week at one store, without notice that my hours were going to be cut), your annual income would be only about $15k, before taxes of course. The stores adapted, actually trying pretty hard to create schedules that allowed everyone to hold down their two or three jobs. It was the norm, a fact of life, something for business to adjust to.
Who We Are
Who are the workers? They are adults, many single moms (64% of minimum wage employees are women), a veteran from Iraq (“the Army taught me to drive a Humvee which turns out not to be a marketable skill”), another retired guy, a couple of students who alternate semesters at work with semesters at the local community college and a small handful of recent immigrants. One guy said that because the big boxer drove his small store out of business he had to take a minimum wage job, which only pays him enough so that he sort of has to buy at the big box store. They made him a greeter at the front door and told him to be enthusiastic. He was. That guy was like Patient Zero in our New Economy.
There is no ladder up, no promotion path. Most of us were just trying to make a little money. But some people had been yelled at too many times, or were too afraid of losing their jobs. They were broke. People—and dogs—don’t get like that quickly; it has to build up on them, or tear down on them, like erosion, one thing after another nudging them deeper into it. Then one day, if the supervisor told them by mistake to hang a sign upside down, they’d do it, more afraid of contradicting the boss than making an obvious mistake. You’d see them rushing in early to stand next to the timeclock so they would not be late. One broke down in tears when she accidentally dropped something, afraid she’d get fired on the spot for it. They walk around like the floor was all stray cat tails. It is a lousy way to live as an adult, your only incentive for doing good work being they’d let you keep a job that made you hate yourself for another day.
You had to pay attention, but not too much. It was an acquired skill. Enough time in this retail minimum economy and it was trained into you for life, but for newcomers like me it was a slow process of getting pushed back into the ground every time we had a accidental growth spurt. None of us was trying to be great, just satisfied. This was just grey bread as you felt yourself getting more and more tired each day.
About 30 million Americans work this way, live this way, at McJobs. We pop up like Brigadoon during election cycles, often as caricatures like Joe the Plumber, or as props for an important speech. In between such appearances, about half of all single-parent families live in poverty. These situations are not unique. Wal-Mart has more than two million employees; if Wal-Mart was an army, it would be the largest military on the planet behind China. Wal-Mart is the largest overall employer in the U.S., and the biggest employer in twenty-five states.
More than Minimum
I did work in retail for minimum wage, both at age 16 and again at age 53. While I lived a life from teenager stocking shelves to older adult stocking shelves, the minimum wage only rose by a few bucks. The minimum wage today is $7.25—is a big latte really what an hour of my labor is worth? While the money has not changed, what has changed is who is now working these minimum wage jobs. Once upon a time they were filled with high school kids earning pocket money. In 2013, the jobs are encumbered by adults struggling to get by. Something is wrong.
So to the president I say, yes, please, do raise the minimum wage. But how far is the proposed nine bucks an hour going to go? Are we going to do eight hours of labor for the cell phone bill? Another twelve for the groceries each week? Another twenty or thirty for a car payment? How many hours are we going to work? How many can we work? Nobody can make a real living doing these jobs. You can’t raise a family on minimum wage. And you can’t build a nation on the working poor. Maybe what we need is to spend more on education and less on war, even out the tax laws and rules just a bit, require a standard living wage instead of a minimum one. That’s not all the answer, but it is a start. The president is right that it is time for a change, but what is needed is much more than a nudge up on the minimum wage.
Working for minimum wage, I came to know that these were real problems, with real people behind them, lives. We have to decide if all this is just about money or if it is about more, about society, about how we live, about people, about America.