Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Video: Christopher Hill, Joe Szyliowicz and I discuss Wikileaks

As I emphasize in the videotape of the Forum on youtube here, the American press, led by the New York Times, has maintained silence at the request of the administration over what the military communiqu├ęs released by Wikileaks mean [h/t Rich and Julie]. One story or set of stories on a single day – in the Times’s case, largely reflecting Pentagon hysteria about Iran – then silence. This forum was by far the liveliest discussion of leading issues surrounding Wikileaks that I have run across; it also marks Dean Christopher Hill’s first public remarks, after being Ambassador to Iraq, about Iraq (in general, I and probably everyone present learned a good deal about how the foreign service works from listening to Chris). Given intense student interest, the discussion could easily have gone on for another hour. I strongly recommend listening to it. The following comments go beyond the forum or are not obvious in it.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the speakers bifurcated dramatically. I spoke of the revelations in the papers that General Petraeus organized and ordered Iraqi torture – sicked the murderous Shia "Wolf Brigade" on the Sunni. See here, here and here. By command responsibility, the legal doctrine on which the United States tried and executed the Tokyo generals, Petraeus – and Pentagon chief Rumsfeld – are guilty of war crimes. I thus emphasized, against some previous remarks about American "abuse," that the correct American English – and legal term – is torture. In the following talks, what America has done was referred to again, for the most part, as "abuse" – without comment on the legal or linguistic issues involved – though Chris also denounced torture and "disagreed respectfully" with President Bush.

Joe raised the issue in a democracy of leaks, which Chris also took up. These serve democratic interests – that citizens really do need to know something about foreign policy and in particular, war and peace (a need which is disgraced by the secrecy of "bipartisan" foreign policy and the emptiness of the 2010 Congressional campaign that did not mention Iraq or Afghanistan or other wars) - but that governments often need to preserve confidentiality or sources, and what might be the balance. This is a deep issue in discussing democracy but from an American point of view. It is also one which removes the discussion from the central issue of crimes the American government has committed in its aggression against Iraq, or in its occupation of Afghanistan. Unsurprisingly, some international students felt left out by this nonetheless very interesting part of the discussion.

In the question period, I raised the disgraceful conduct of Judith Miller and Michal Gordon, put on the frontpage of the New York Times while reporters like James Risen, who actually tried to get at the truth were put on p. A20. Gordon is still employed at the Times; this is an editorial decision by a corrupt, pro-aggression newspaper (the Gannett-Tripp papers at least had some honest coverage put near the front; they have, however, no paper in Manhattan or Washington). In his remarks, Chris eloquently denounces the corrupt embedding of the press with the Pentagon (play soldiers going on missions, carrying weapons, or being flown on fancy, all-expense paid trips...), its forfeiting of a serious independent role, which, comparatively, the press had in Vietnam (one must look to independent journalists like Jeremy Scahill for reporting). In the discussion, Joe pointed out brilliantly that Miller had purveyed leaks from Ahmed Chalabi. These actually came from Vice President Cheney so that Cheney could hold up the New York Times front page on the Sunday talk shows and say “See, they agree with us.” More exactly, Cheney’s lies became the lies of the Times.

As was not said in the discussion, however, there are two kinds of leaks. The first, whistleblowing from below, is democratic and desirable to prevent harms to the public. The second, leaks from above to campaign for a program of action while avoiding any personal responsibility, is often authoritarian, deceitful and manipulative. The first type, say a Bradley Manning or Daniel Ellsberg, is a genuine political hero, someone who sees a great wrong or crime, and is driven, at great cost, often under great threat, to speak out. That is admirable. Unsurprisingly, Obama, to his enormous discredit, throws the book at Manning, just as his administration multifacetedly attacks Julian Assange.

As Steve Wagner has recently emphasized to me, the U.S. government has "leaked" to the corporate press that Assange is crazy and in Sweden, manufactured a case – dropped a couple of days later by the prosecution and then a day later initiated again – about rape. Regardless of what happened, is it likely that such hasty action, then abrupt change and a further abrupt about-face by a prosecutor – something otherwise unheard of – is anything but a result of American pressure? The US has tried to shut down or block the Wikileaks site, made them move from country to country. It thus does not behoove American officials to decry Assange for his unwillingness to consider the fate of American sources, since the US government has already committed crimes against him and Wikileaks. Columnists at the National Review and elsewhere on the Right have called for the government to murder him. Fortunately, murdering this Australian right now would be too obvious – but I would apply Chris’s statement to a Chicago Tribune reporter who revealed the actions of a courageous Iraqi human rights minister – if she falls down the stairs sometime, I will hold you personally responsible for her death – to these Rightists (I mean authoritarians, not conservatives) and, of course, the US government.

Steve speaks of how madness is the charge against Socrates, Jesus, Martin Luther King, and many other protestors. In Phaedrus, it is Plato’s own word of choice (philosophical mania) for the eros involved in relentlessly seeking truth (and, alternately, love or beauty). See here. This is part of what I elsewhere call anti-radical ideology: that most people are contented even in slavery, but that trouble is stirred up by outside agitators, speaking a funny, often foreign language and who have “other aims” [see Democratic Individuality, ch. 12, and Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy? introduction]. Why most people at great risk sometimes follow such people is a mystery which those who routinely appeal to this ideology try not to allow anyone to consider (since their stupidity and apology for oppressors will then stand out). But Steve’s emphasis on mania also adds a central feature of what such agitators are like in their willingness to take on the oppressors, in their seeking for justice.

The second type of leak has become, as Glenn Greenwald has emphasized, common in the New York Times. Counterfeit journalists now allow politicians and high government bureaucrats to give them leaks “off the record.” Any lie the latter choose to tell makes it right onto the front page of the Times without attribution – so that Cheney could cite himself in the phony persona of the Times. Judith Miller, Michael Gordon and their ilk are not reporters, they are yo-yos of the powerful. Except in rare cases, serious journalism would eschew not for attribution quotes. Such reporters would demand that officials act democratically and responsibly, give information to encourage actions publically and on the record.

Of course, the American press even during Vietnam did not do this much (David Halberstam or Jonathan Schell stand out, however). IF Stone, the great independent journalist (and my sister-in-law’s father) said routinely and rightly: “All governments lie.” So he studied what the government released without seeking admission to press conferences (after his work at PM during the Roosevelt administration; when he was formally blacklisted). Thus, his analysis of the State Department White Paper on Vietnam in 1965 was a classic in revealing lies and instrumental in the emergence of the anti-War movement. I heard him speak at Winthrop House at Harvard on this theme with perhaps 150 other people that spring, and he gave opponents of the War a lot of intellectual ammunition, persuaded others that the War was an aggression and a horror.

I often find it difficult to listen to government officials talk about war with a straight-face (I make an exception for Obama who seems thoughtful even when I - often - disagree with him). As Chris rightly says, the first casualty of war is truth, and Americans should damn well think much harder about going to war. I should note: most Americans opposed the war in Iraq (it was never a popular war, even during the initial blitzkrieg) and most now oppose the war in Afghanistan. Obama won nomination and unexpected, mass support against Hillary Clinton because he thought the Iraq war was dumb, whereas as she, an opportunist, had supported it. As a onetime opponent of the Vietnam war at Wellesley and an opponent of racism toward the Panthers at Yale Law School, Hillary knew better. But she had become sealed off against the truth as a leading figure in the Empire. In contrast, I agree or sympathize with almost everything Chris said. He – and I think quite a number of others, inside and outside the government like Ray McGovern long at the CIA or Ali Soufan of the FBI, inter alia – have not “gone to the dark side.”

Chris, I and Joe pretty well agree about Miller. But Chris provided a further insight: that she toured Iraq this past summer, praising the all-shining military and disparaging "civilians" - read the State Department - asserting they are not up to managing the rest of the occupation. She is another Petraeus acolyte. Petraeus is interested in replacing competent State Department officials with representatives of Blackwater and other firms: to destroy any vestiges of humanity or competence. So Miller shils not for the military, but the private companies, of no loyalty to the US government, merely to their own profits, who are increasingly hollowing out or eating from within, as a parasite, the public responsibility of the American government (under Bush, the ratio in Iraq was 1 mercenary for every soldier; in the occupation under Obama, 1.33 mercenary for every solider (72,000 mercenaries, 50,000 soldiers).

Just a note on two disagreements. We were asked why Obama isn't prosecuting the war criminals. I emphasized the large number of candidates in the Bush administration – possibly a couple of hundred high officials - including not only for war crimes but Karl Rove’s firing of Republican-appointed federal attorneys and misuse of the courts to send, for instance, the former Governor of Alabama, Donald Siegelman and Mississippi Democrat Paul Minor, to jail. I stressed Obama's betrayal of the rule of law. Chris rightly emphasized that Obama had come in during financial collapse and needed to pursue his own agenda on putting people back to work, green jobs, health care, and so forth. Prosecuting the criminals would have made this difficult. That is a subtler point than I made. But Chris did not mention the rule of law. The fact that the rule of law is pretty well dead in the United States is, once again, revealed in this exchange. See here. Note also that Obama could have set up an independent commission to report on torture, parallel to the commission on social security (the deficit). He might even have postponed its report until after the 2012 election, sealing it from immediate electoral consequences. Having investigtions into the criminality would probably have made our political life much healthier. For in any case, the Republicans have engaged in blistering attacks and nihilism (the Party of destroying programs to create jobs, help the poor or mitigate Pharoah-like inequalities, facilitated by the corporate "press"). With racism, they call Obama the “socialist, national socialist, communist without a birth certificate” other. Arguably, faced with consequences for their conduct in office, they might have been less fantastical and belligerent...

Chris also cites a wonderful example of the Iraqi human rights minister, trying to do something about a secret prison camp near the Baghdad airport, that Chris rightly sought to protect. I agree with him in such cases. But the overall militarism of US policy, its occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, its escalating drone wars in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, the current elevation of General Petraeus and the military in American public life, and the immense budget and central role of the military in the war complex is an enormous danger. It will be very difficult to turn around. This circumstance drove Bradley Manning to stand up. He faces terrible punishment (many years in jail). We should all be grateful to and support him.

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