The twilight zone of American political life
By John Chuckman
I think a description of the political space in which we live as a kind of twilight reality is not an exaggeration. Not only is a great deal of the news about the world we read and hear manipulated and even manufactured, but a great deal of genuine news is simply missing. People often do not know what is happening in the world, although they generally believe they do know after reading their newspapers or listening to news broadcasts. People receive the lulling sounds or words of most of this kind of news almost unconsciously just as they do to the strains of piped-in "elevator music" in stores and offices.
There are several reasons why this is so. The consolidation of news media creates huge corporate industries whose interests are no different to those of other huge corporate industries. The ownership and control of these industries is not in the hands of people interested in finding out about things and helping others to understand: they are in the hands of people with political connections and goals. At the government level, those in power over the great agencies of the military and security also are not motivated by helping others to understand; indeed, they often are very much interested in hiding what they do.
With a large, complex, and powerful state like the United States these motivations become overwhelming in importance. The more the establishment's national ambitions become interference in, and manipulation of, the world's affairs - in effect, controlling the global environment in which it lives - the more it finds itself mired in acts and policies which cannot stand the light of day. Secrecy becomes a paramount goal of government, and all corporate news organizations - understanding their dependency upon government agencies for leaks and information to make them look good, for permissions and licences which allow them to survive and grow, and for advertising revenue from other great corporations involved with government - understand implicitly the permissible limits of investigation and news. And when they do forget, they are promptly reminded. Some of these giants - CNN and Fox News come to mind - make little pretence of genuine news or investigation, existing almost entirely as outlets for points of view, attitudes, and the odd tantalizing morsel of disinformation. They keep an audience because they offer what is best understood as either infotainment or soft propaganda which is expertly tuned to listeners' and readers' assumptions and preconceived ideas.
Size matters in all enterprises, economies of scale contributing to build powerful corporations with global influence. Size also matters to create what economists call "barriers to entry" in any industry, something which plays a major role in the evolution of many industries over time from fairly competitive ones to quasi-monopolistic ones. It is virtually impossible for a newcomer to enter an industry evolved to this latter state, including the news industry. It would be about as difficult to enter the American news industry as it would be to enter its soda pop, car manufacturing, household products, or hamburger restaurant industries. It is always possible to start a small niche, or boutique, operation, but it literally is not possible to compete with oligopolistic giants. So, necessarily, American news is under the control of a very few people, extremely wealthy people, who attend the same cocktail parties as senior people in government agencies and other great corporations.
The more powerful the great military-security-policing agencies in a society become, the more independent of public approval and scrutiny they grow. This is unavoidable without a sustained popular demand for public accountability and reasonable transparency, but such popular movements are difficult to start and even harder to maintain, and they are pretty much absent in America. Every once in a while we do get a movement in America popping up like spring dandelions on the lawn, almost always of the "back to basics" type, the Tea Party being the most recent manifestation, financed by some wealthy persons with their own goals and serving to titillate people for a short while that the dark monstrosity in Washington can be made to go away, but, as with the Tea Party, they always dry up and blow away.
The politicians who ostensibly oversee dark matters in special committees do not want public credit for what they approve. And I believe a point is reached, as it has been reached in the United States, where a great deal of the planning and decision-making in dirty affairs is left entirely in the hands of the great security agencies themselves, politicians not being in a position to interfere even if they wanted to do so. The sheer volume and complexity of such operations argues for this view, and the truth is most people and most politicians are comfortable with inertia.
If we go back about fifty years we have a complex and fascinating example of these forces and tendencies at work, and we can only be sure that matters have gone a great deal further since that time with the immense swelling of security budgets, open contempt for privacy and rights, and the dramatic advance of technological capabilities. On the matter of technology from the citizens' point of view, the blithe pop notion of "social media," so often talked up in the press as now working against concentrated power, ignores that "social media" too are just great corporations intimately linked to government. They not only send the security agencies a detailed flow of information about their subscribers, but they are all engineered to be switched off when government desires it. The Internet in general has provided an outlet for critical views, but the total exposure to the public is small in the scheme of things - a few channels, as it were, in a multi-trillion channel universe - and can mostly be ignored by authorities, and, in any event, the Internet is evolving quickly into something else far more dominated by commercial interests. The Golden Age of the Internet, so far as ideas are concerned, may well soon be over. To return to our example, if we go back to America's many attempts to topple or assassinate the leader of Cuba in the early 1960s, we have perhaps our best understood example of elaborate dark operations, unaccountable officials, murder, mayhem, and an utterly compliant press - all freely continuing for years. Although histories of the Kennedy presidency contain more than one version of some details of America's vast, long-lasting terrorist plot, still, much of it is understood, at least better than is the case for many such matters.
John Kennedy may not have been quite the idealist some sentimentally view him today, but he was more thoughtful, independent, and tough-minded than many American Presidents of the 20th century. He learned nearly immediately after becoming President that the previous Eisenhower government had established a vast operation to eliminate Castro and his government. It was a terror operation whose size and complexity and resources made the later mountain redoubt of Osama bin Laden resemble a Boy Scout camp. Despite its size, this was an operation unknown to the press and public at the time, although there is an anecdote that The New York Times tripped over the plot and, in traditional Times' fashion, suppressed it at the CIA's request. The plans took many routes, including, as we learned later from the Church Committee in 1975 (an examination of some intelligence practices in the wake of the Watergate scandal), CIA representatives going to the bizarre lengths of approaching senior Mafia figures to discuss commissioning them for Castro's assassination.
Kennedy came under great pressure from the CIA to approve the project for invading Cuba, a difficult position in which to put a young, inexperienced President. He decided to support the plan with important provisos. The Bay of Pigs invasion, by a CIA-trained, supplied, and paid private army of Cuban refugees, was directed by CIA personnel and supported by a huge propaganda apparatus, including a radio station, in Florida. There were also CIA assassination teams prepared to enter Cuba and kill certain people once the refugees were established. Many elements of the plan and the people running it had been involved in 1954 with the successful overthrow of the elected government of Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán in Guatemala. But Cuba was not Guatemala, and their plans proved a colossal and embarrassing failure which served only to increase Castro's heroic, legendary stature in Cuba, a classic result of poorly-conceived black operations called "blowback" in the security establishment, and the reverberations of these events continued for more than a decade, claiming many lives and careers.
Following the failed invasion, CIA leaders, much resembling some "old boys" at an expensive men's club where outsiders are resented, blamed the President for his scepticism and failure to extend what they regarded as adequate support, especially in the form of disguised American air support for the invading forces. The new President himself was furious at having been pressured into the fiasco at the start of his term. The truth is that the CIA's plan was almost laughable, including the key assumption that great numbers of ordinary Cubans would rise against Castro, an extremely popular leader, once the invasion force appeared. It was a delusional sand castle built on a foundation of blind hatred for anything to do with communism, especially for a man as charismatic as Castro. The blindness extended to the CIA's having selected a poor geographical location for forces to land.
It was all a tremendous example of the arrogance of power, secret men with unlimited resources making secret plans that reflected little reality. Kennedy fired some top CIA officials, including Director Allen Dulles, and is said to have privately sworn to tear the CIA apart. We can only imagine the self-righteous fury of the CIA's Cold Warrior Mujahedeen at the time, their words, when recorded here or there, resembling tent preachers speaking about casting out devils. Kennedy, however, did not tear the CIA apart. Realistically, that would have been impossible with the men at the CIA knowing better than anyone how to capitalize on an attempt - blackmail, threats, ugly frat-boy jokes, and criminal activity being everyday tools they used. To be labelled "soft on communism" in the early 1960s was the political Mark of Beast, Richard Nixon having built an entire political career on it, and Kennedy's personal life was subject to then-unpalatable revelations of extensive marital infidelity. So Kennedy continued to work with the CIA on a series of sabotage operations against Cuba and attempts on Castro's life. Indeed, it is said that Kennedy put his brother, Robert, a sufficiently tough and ruthless man by all accounts, in charge of the plans, making senior CIA personnel answerable to the young Attorney General, itself the kind of act which would not endear him to the CIA's old boys.
The secret matters around Cuba dominated events for years, again almost without any hard public information, leading to the Cuban Missile Crisis which President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev peacefully settled, a settlement importantly including an American pledge not to invade Cuba again. Ultimately this writer is convinced that it was events around Cuba that led directly to the assassination of John Kennedy, much evidence suggesting a false trail to Cuba being planted before the fateful day in Dallas, the very kind of trail that could be used by the Cold Warrior Mujahedeen to justify an invasion after all. With everything from a faked visit to Mexico City by someone posing as Lee Harvey Oswald (the poor man working in New Orleans as a paid FBI informer at the time - likely a low level part of a Kennedy-initiated FBI program to track and suppress the worst anti-Cuba excesses of the refugees and their handlers in keeping with the spirit of the Missile Crisis settlement - totally unaware he was being set up by those he fell in with), the one-man creation of a Fair Play to Cuba chapter in New Orleans, handing out Fair Play pamphlets (some of which were stamped with the address of an ex-senior FBI anti-communist fanatic, Guy Bannister, who ran a mysterious front operation in New Orleans with some very unsavory associates) at places including near a naval facility, the night visit to Sylvia Odio, daughter of a noted Cuban political figure, by a group of unidentified men who referred to a Leon Oswald, and many other such carefully placed little piles of breadcrumbs.
Kennedy offended his Pentagon Joint Chiefs by not letting them immediately bomb and invade Cuba when offensive missiles were discovered there by U-2 photography, and of course anything of that nature offending the Pentagon offended also the CIA and those dependent upon it. With his pledge not to invade Cuba again, Kennedy offended the violent Cuban refugee community, people who were armed to the teeth by the CIA and had killed and crippled opponents in Florida as well as in Cuba. And through the entire sequence of events from the Bay of Pigs to the Missile Crisis, Kennedy consistently offended the Cold Warrior Mujahedeen at the CIA. He added to that offence with acts like establishing secret backchannel communications with Khrushchev and preliminary efforts to establish the same communications with Castro. Such efforts were most unlikely to remain secret from the CIA when they involved such a high level and weighty matters. Remember, hatreds in the United States around Cuba remained so intense in the intelligence and refugee communities that as late as 1976, a CIA operative named Luis Posada Carriles planted two bombs on Cubana Airlines Flight 455, killing all 78 people aboard, and he was protected by the American government.
The effect on the general public of accurate knowledge about dark matters in the rare instances when they become known can be glimpsed here or there. One of the best examples is the disappearance from politics, including credible presidential ambitions, of a seemingly attractive Vietnam veteran holding the Medal of Honor, former-Senator Bob Kerrey. When the public learned of a secret operation called Project Phoenix and later learned that Kerrey earned his medal through such work, his political career simply dissolved. Project Phoenix was a dark operation in Vietnam in which American Special Forces crept out, night after night, to assassinate villagers the CIA identified as targets. It is estimated that twenty thousand innocent villagers had their throats slashed in the night by Americans creeping into their homes. It would be hard to conceive of a more cowardly and grisly form of war, but it went on for a long time in complete secrecy. The operation burst upon public awareness only after a titanic internal struggle at the CIA over the authenticity of a Soviet defector named Yuri Nosenko ended with the dismissal of James Angleton in 1974, the paranoid Chief of CIA Counterintelligence (a man, incidentally, who unquestionably had special knowledge of the Kennedy assassination) by new CIA Director William Colby. Colby also revealed the Phoenix program for reasons not well understood and stated he had run it. (A retired Colby later had a mysterious fatal boating accident near his home.)
People who want to discredit critics and sceptics of government today often use the term "conspiracy theorist," almost as though there were ipso facto no such things as conspiracy or dishonesty in government. It is of course intended as a pejorative description. But the entire history of affairs around Cuba puts the lie to those using the term, and we know from many bits of information that Cuba is only one example of scores of genuine conspiracies.
Those with some history will know that secrecy and dishonesty have long served the interests of power. Why doesn't the United States claim credit for overthrowing the democratic government of Guatemala, the democratic government of Iran which unleashed the filthy work of the Shah's secret police, SAVAK, afterward, or the democratic government of Chile and the fifteen thousand or so state murders that followed? Why doesn't it claim credit for the State Department's teletyping lists of desired victims to a new government of Indonesia, after the fall of Sukarno in 1965, as its savage followers conducted a genocidal slaughter of suspected communists which saw half a million people thrown into rivers with their throats slashed? Why did it hide acts like the machine-gunning of hundreds of fleeing Korean civilians, including women and children, at the early stages of the Korean War? Or the hideous murder by suffocation in sealed trucks of about three thousand Taleban prisoners in the early stages of the Afghanistan War undertaken by one of America's key Afghan allies shortly after Donald Rumsfeld publicly said they should be killed or walled away forever? Why doesn't Israel just tell people it terrorized Palestinians, killing and raping, in 1948 to make as many as possible flee their homes? Or that it machine-gunned masses of Egyptian prisoners of war in the Sinai in a war that it engineered only for conquering more of Palestine?
Could it be that there are acts of which governments are ashamed? That there is reason to be ashamed of acts which they nevertheless continue to repeat? It does seem that government values its reputation enough to avoid taking credit for its ugliest acts. The terrible dilemma is that in a supposedly democratic state, these horrible acts are committed without either the knowledge or consent of the people and despite the fact that the results affect the public's welfare and often international reputation. Now at just what point could the consent of the people in a democratic state be more important than committing organized murder on their behalf? I cannot imagine any. Yet that is a point at which states like America feel free to act, covering up what they do with masses of secrecy and lies.
Why would anyone deny the existence of conspiracies by America's government? Regrettably, the only reason that some government behavior becomes known is the existence of whistleblowers. But how does government treat whistleblowers? Just ask Mordechai Vanunu or Daniel Ellsberg or Private Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning or Edward Snowden - truly brave and ethically-motivated individuals, treated like criminals by their governments.
Pervasive secrecy and truly democratic government are simply incompatible, and I think it fair to say that where we see monumental levels of secrecy, as we do in the United States with billions of classified documents and hundreds of past controversies dimly understood, it provides prima facie proof of a society tarted-up to resemble democracy but having few if any of the required internal organs functioning. A culture of secrecy and violence is the culture of a police state, full stop.
Right now we have partial information about some recent American, or American-sponsored, terrorist programs. One such is the induced "civil war" in Syria which receives arms and assistance via Turkey, the same route used to inject a rag-tag army of extremists into Syria and to allow them to retreat periodically in escaping Syria's army. The extremists even used some of the deadly nerve gas, Sarin, to kill masses of civilians in hopes of pushing the United States openly into the conflict, making the rebels surely the kind of people no sane person wants running a country. And who supplied them with Sarin, a manufactured substance available from only a few sources? A related dark program occurred in Benghazi, Libya, where an American ambassador was killed in another instance of blowback: he had been running an operation to collect from Libya and export to Syria weapons and thugs when some the thugs turned and attacked him instead. Yet another dark operation has been the destabilization of Ukraine through a huge secret flow of money to right wing forces who shot hundreds of innocent people down on the streets of Kiev to instill general fear and terror to support a coup.
Now, you will not read one word from an American official acknowledging any of this grotesque behavior. Indeed, John Kerry has the unenviable job of publically lying about it, puffing and pontificating and self-righteously proclaiming America's revulsion over others behaving like that. And in all this storm of murder and dishonesty, you will only find American journalism, that noble guardian of the public's right to know, keeping its readers and listeners in complete ignorance.
This is how it is possible in what is often regarded a free and democratic state, the national government commits itself to murder and mayhem, using its people's resources without informing them and without their consent, all the while vigorously lying to them. Can you really have democracy that way? I don't think so. The power and resources that are in the hands of America's great secret agencies are greater than those enjoyed by many of the world's dictators. And the distortions of the American press surely are in keeping with the practices of places where the press is never regarded as free. Many Americans know that at the local town or city level, they do have democratic institutions and attitudes, a fact which reassures them against criticisms of their national system, but then so does China today, and no one calls China a democracy.