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Mother Jones recently announced it’s “redoubling our Russia reporting”—in the words of editor Clara Jeffery. Ain’t that rich. What passes for “Russia reporting” at Mother Jones is mostly just glorified InfoWars paranoia for progressive marks — a cataract of xenophobic conspiracy theories about inscrutable Russian barbarians hellbent on subverting our way of life, spreading chaos, destroying freedom & democracy & tolerance wherever they once flourished. . . . because they hate us, because we’re free.

Western reporting on Russia has always been garbage, But the so-called “Russia reporting” of the last year has taken the usual malpractice to unimagined depths — whether it’s from Mother Jones or MSNBC, or the Washington Post or Resistance hero Louise Mensch.

But of all the liberal media, Mother Jones should be most ashamed for fueling the moral panic about Russian “disinformation”. It wasn’t too long ago that the Reagan Right attacked Mother Jones for spreading “Kremlin disinformation” and subverting America. There were threats and leaks to the media about a possible Senate investigation into Mother Jones serving as a Kremlin disinformation dupe, a threat that hung over the magazine throughout the early Reagan years. A new Senate Subcommittee on Security and Terrorism (SST for short) was set up in 1981 to investigate Kremlin “disinformation” and “active measures” in America, and the American  “dupes” who helped Moscow subvert our way of life. That subcommittee was created to harass and repress leftist anti-imperial dissent in America, using “terrorism” as the main threat, and “disinformation” as terrorism’s fellow traveller. The way the the SST committee put it, “terrorism” and “Kremlin disinformation” were one and the same, a meta-conspiracy run out of Moscow to weaken America.

And Mother Jones was one of the first American media outlets in the SST committee’s sights.

Adam Hochschild, the founding editor of Mother Jones (and author of some great books including King Leopold’s Ghost), responded publicly to the threats coming out of the Senate in the early Reagan years. In a New York Times op-ed published in late 1981, “Dis-(Mis-?)Information”, Hochschild wrote about a Republican Senate mailer sent out to 290 radio stations that accused Mother Jones of being Kremlin disinformation dupes. The mailer, on Senate letterhead, featured a tape recording of an interview between the chairman of the SST subcommittee, Sen. Jeremiah Denton of Alabama, and a committee witness— a “disinformation expert” named Arnaud de Borchgrave, author of a bestselling spy novel called “The Spike” — about a fictional Kremlin plot to subvert the West with disinformation, and thereby rule the world.

Here’s how Hochschild described the Republican Senate mailer in his NYTimes piece:

“In it, the writer Arnaud de Borchgrave accuses Mother Jones, the Village Voice, the Soho News, the Progressive magazine of serving as disseminators of K.G.B. ‘disinformation’ – the planting of false or misleading items in news media.
“Mr. de Borchgrave provided no specific examples of facts or articles. But, then, the trouble with the K.G.B. is that you don’t know what disinformation it is feeding you because you don’t know who its myriad agents are. So the only safe thing is to distrust any author or magazine too critical of the United States. Because anyone who is against, say, the MX or the B-1 bomber could be working for the Russians.”

Here, the Mother Jones founder describes the menacing logic of pursuing the “Kremlin disinformation” conspiracy: any American critical of US military power, police power, corporate power, overseas power . . . anyone critical of anything that powerful Americans do, is a Kremlin disinformation dupe whether they know it or not. That leaves only the appointed accusers to decide who is and who isn’t a Kremlin agent.

Hochschild called this panic over Kremlin disinformation another “Red Scare”, warning,

“[T]o accuse critical American journalists of serving as its unwitting dupes makes as little sense as Russians accusing rebellious Poles of being unwitting agents of American imperialism. When Mr. de Borchgrave accuses skeptical journalists of being unwitting purveyors of disinformation, the accusation is more slippery, less easy to definitively disprove, and less subject to libel law than if he were to accuse them of being conscious Communist agents.
“…Although if you believe the K.G.B. is successfully infiltrating America’s news media, then anything must seem possible.”

It’s a damn shame today’s editorial staff at Mother Jones aren’t aware of their own magazine’s history.

Then again, who am I fooling? Mother Jones wouldn’t care if you shoved their faces in their own recent history — they’re way too donor-deep invested in pushing this “active measures” conspiracy. Trump has been a goldmine of donor cash for anyone willing to carry the #Resistance water.

This is quite literally the case with Mother Jones, which has been a little coy about the deal it cut to “redouble” its “Russia reporting.” That deal involves partnering with a straight-up Red-baiting, Cold War-mongering website project called “PutinTrump” featuring a scary Soviet hammer and sickle in case the Cold War mongering wasn’t clear enough — with no mind to history and the fact that Russia is a neoliberal dystopia with a flat 13% income tax rate hailed as a “miracle” by the Heritage Foundation.

PutinTrump was a project set up last fall by tech plutocrat Rob Glaser, CEO and founder of RealNetworks, to scare voters into believing that voting for Trump is treason. God knows I can’t stand Trump or his politics, but of all the inane campaign ideas to run on — this?

One would’ve thought that the smart people would learn their lesson from the election, that running against a Kremlin conspiracy theory is a loser. But instead, they seem to think the problem is they didn’t fear-monger enough, so they’re “redoubling” on the Russophobia. Donor money is driving this — donor cash is quite literally driving Mother Jones’ editorial focus. And it really is this crude.

Take for example a PutinTrump section titled “Russian Expansion” — the scary Red imagery and language are lifted straight out of the Reagan Cold War playbook from the early-mid 80s, when, it so happens, Mother Jones was targeted as a Kremlin dupe. Featuring a lot of shadowy red-colored alien soldiers over an outline of Crimea, Mother Jones’ donor-partner promotes a classic Cold War propaganda line about Russian/Soviet expansionism—a lie that has been the basis for so many wars launched to “stop” this alleged “expansionism” in the past, wars that Mother Jones is supposed to oppose. Here’s what MJ’s partner writes now:

RUSSIAN EXPANSION

Through unknowing manipulation, or by direct support, Trump will become an accessory to the continual expansionism committed by Putin.

Might does not equal right—and it never has for Americans—but Putin’s Russia plays by different rules. Or maybe no rules at all.

The communist/leftist imagery is there for a reason. In case you haven’t noticed, Clinton supporters have waged a crude pr campaign to blame their candidate’s loss on leftists, whom they equate with neo-Nazis and Trump. I’ve been smeared as “alt-left” by a Vanity Fair columnist, who equated me with Breitbart and other far-right journalists, for the crime of not sufficiently supporting Hillary Clinton. The larger goal of this crude PR effort is to equate opposition to Hillary Clinton with treason and Nazism. Which was exactly the goal of Reagan’s “Kremlin disinformation” hysteria — the whole point was to smear critics of Reagan and his right-wing politics as pro-Kremlin traitors, whether they knew it or not.

    *     *    *

What’s kind of shocking to me as someone who was alive in the Reagan scare is how unoriginal this current one is. Even the words and the terminology are plagiarized from the Reagan Right witch-hunting campaign — “Kremlin active measures”; “Kremlin disinformation”; “Kremlin dupes” — terms introduced by right-wing novelists and intelligence hucksters, and repeated ad nauseam until they transformed into something plausible, giving quasi-academic cover to some very old-fashioned state repression, harassment, surveillance . . . and a lot of ruined lives. That’s what happened last time, and if history is any guide, it’s how this one will end up too.

Today we’re supposed to remember how cheerful and optimistic the Reagan Era was. But that’s now how I remember it, it’s not how it looked to Mother Jones at the time — and it’s not how it looks when you go back through the original source material again and relive it. The Reagan Era kicked off with a lot of dark fear-mongering about the Kremlin using disinformation and active measures to destroy our way of life. Everything that the conservative Establishment loathed about 1970s — defeat in Vietnam, Church Committee hearings gutting the CIA and FBI, the cult of Woodward & Bernstein & Hersh, peace marchers, minority rights radicals — was an “active measures” treason conspiracy.

As soon as the new Republican majority in the Senate took power in 1981, they set up a new subcommittee to investigate Kremlin disinformation dupes, called the Senate Subcommittee on Security and Terrorism.  Staffers leaked to the media they intended to investigate Mother Jones. Panic spread across the progressive media world, and suddenly all those cool Ivy League kids who invested everything in becoming the next Woodward-Bernsteins — the cultural heroes at the time — got scared. The image at the top of this article comes from a lead article in Columbia University’s student newspaper, the Spectator, published a few weeks after Reagan took office, on SST committee’s assault on Mother Jones. The headline read:

The New McCarthyism / Are You Now, Or Have You Ever Been…

and the the full-page article begins,

If you subscribe to Mother Jones, give money to the American Civil Liberties Union, or support the Institute for Policy Studies, Senator Jeremiah Denton’s new Subcommittee on Security and Terrorism may be interested in you.

It describes how in the 1970s Americans finally got rid of HUAC and the Senate Internal Security Committee, the Red Scare witch-hunting Congressional committees — only to have them revived one election cycle later in the Reagan Revolution.

By the end of Reagan’s first year in office, there was still no formal investigation into Mother Jones, but the harassment was there and it wasn’t subtle at all — such as the Republican Senate mailer accusing the magazine of being KGB disinformation dupes. At the end of 1981, MJ editor/founder Adam Hochschild announced he was stepping aside, and in his final note to readers and the public, he wrote:

“To Senator Jeremiah Denton, chair of the Subcommittee on Security and Terrorism: If your committee investigates Mother Jones, a plan hinted at some months ago, I demand to be subpoenaed. I would not want to miss telling off today’s new McCarthyites.”

 

So here we are a few decades later, and Mother Jones’ editor Clara Jeffery is denouncing WikiLeaks — yesterday’s journalism stars, today’s traitors — as “Russia[’s]…willing dupes and propagandists” while Mother Jones magazine turned itself into a mouthpiece for America’s spies peddling the same warmed-over conspiracy theories that once targeted Mother Jones.

  *     *    *

Jeremiah Denton — the New Right senator from Alabama who led the SST committee investigation into Kremlin “disinformation” and its dupes like Mother Jones — believed that America was being weakened from within and had only a few years left at most to turn it around. As Denton saw it, the two most dangerous threats to America’s survival were a) hippie sex, and b) Kremlin disinformation. The two were inseparable in his mind, linked to the larger “global terrorism” plot masterminded by Moscow.

To fight hippie sex and teen promiscuity, the freshman senator introduced a “Chastity Bill” funding federal programs that promoted the joys of chastity to Americans armies of bored, teen suburban long-hairs. A lot of clever people laughed at that, because at the time the belief in linear historical progress was strong, and this represented something so atavistic that it was like a curiosity more than anything — Pauly Shore’s “Alabama Man” unfrozen after 10,000 years and unleashed on the halls of Congress.

Less funny were Denton’s calls for death penalty for adulterers, and laws he pushed restricting women’s right to abortion.

Jeremiah Denton was once a big name in this country. Americans have since forgotten Denton, because John McCain pretty much stole his act. But back in the 70s and early 80s, Denton was America’s most famous Vietnam War hero/POW. Like McCain, Denton was a Navy pilot shot down over Vietnam and taken prisoner. Denton spent 1965-1973 in North Vietnamese POW camps—two years longer than McCain—and he was America’s most famous POW. His most famous moment was when his North Vietnamese captors hauled him before the cameras to acknowledge his crimes, and instead Denton famously blinked out a Morse code message: “T-O-R-T-U-R-E”.

In the 1973 POW exchange deal between Hanoi and Nixon, “Operation Homecoming,” it was Denton who was the first American POW to come off the plane and speak to the American tv crews (McCain was on the same flight, but not nearly as prominent as Denton). I keep referring back to McCain here because not only were they both famous Navy pilot POWs, but they both wind up becoming the most pathologically obsessive Russophobes in the Senate. Just a few days ago, McCain said that Russia is a bigger threat to America than Islamic State. Something real bad must’ve happened in those Hanoi Hiltons, worse than anything they told us about, because those guys really, really hate Russians — and they really want the rest of us to hate Russians too.

Everything they loathed about America, everything that was wrong with America, had to be the fault of a hostile alien culture. There was no other explanation for what happened in the 1970s. The America that Denton came home to in 1973 was under some kind of hostile power, an alien-controlled replica of the America he last saw in 1965. Popular morality had been turned on its head: Hollywood blockbusters with bare naked bodies and gutter language! Children against their parents! Homosexuals on waterskis! Sex and treason! Patriots were the enemy, while America-haters were heroes! Denton re-appeared like some reactionary Rip Van Winkle who went to sleep in the safe feather-bed world of J Edgar Hoover’s America — only to wake up eight years later on Bernadine Dohrn’s futon, soaked in Bill Ayers’ bodily fluids. For Denton, the post-60s cultural shock came on all at once — as sudden and as jarring as, well, the shock so many Blue State Americans experienced when Donald Trump won the election last November.

Sex, immorality & military defeat—these were inseparable in Denton’s mind, and in a lot of reactionaries’ minds. Attributing all of America’s social convulsions of the previous 15 years to immorality and a Kremlin disinformation plot was a neat way of avoiding the complex and painful realities — then, as now.

“No nation can survive long unless it can encourage its young to withhold indulgence in their sexual appetites until marriage.” — Jeremiah Denton

What hit Denton hardest was all the hippie sex and the pop culture glorification of hippie sex. It’s hard to convey just how deeply all that smug hippie sex wounded tens of millions of Americans. It’s a hate wound that’s still raw, still burns to the touch. A wound that fueled so much reactionary political fire over the past 50 years, and it doesn’t look like it’ll burn out any time soon.

Back in 1980, Denton blamed all that pop culture sex on Russian active measures, and he did his best to not just outlaw it, but to demonize sex as something along the lines of treason.

Just as so many people today cannot accept the idea that Trumpism is Made In America—so Denton and his Reagan Right constituents believed there had to be some alien force to explain why Americans had changed so drastically, seeming to adopt values that were the antithesis of Middle America’s values in 1965. It had to be the fault of an alien voodoo beam! It had to be a Russian plot!

And so, therefore, it was a Russian plot.

A 1981 Time magazine profile of the freshman Senator begins,

“Denton believes that America is being destroyed by sexual immorality and Soviet-sponsored political ‘disinformation’—and that both are being promoted by dupes, or worse, in the media. By the mid-1980s, he warns, ‘we will have less national security than we had proportionately when George Washington’s troops were walking around barefoot at Valley Forge.’”

Sexual immorality—it’s a common theme in all the Russia panics of the past 100 years—whether the sexually liberated Emma Goldmans of the Red Scare, the homosexual-panic of the McCarthy witch-hunts, the hippie orgies of Denton’s nightmares, or Trump’s supposed golden shower fetish with immoral Russian prostitutes in our current panic. . . .

To fight the Kremlin disinformation demons, Denton set up the Senate Subcommittee on Security and Terrorism (SST), with two other young Republican senators—Orrin Hatch, who’s still haunting Capitol Hill today; and John East of North Carolina, a Jesse Helms protege who later did his country a great service by committing suicide in his North Carolina garage, before the end of his first term in office in 1986.

Sen. East’s staffers leaned Nazi-ward, like their boss. One Sen. East staffer was Samuel Francis — now famous as the godfather of the alt-Right, but who in 1981 was known as the guru behind the Senate’s “Russia disinformation” witch hunt. Funny how that works — today’s #Resistance takes its core idea, that America is under the control of hostile Kremlin disinformation sorcerers — from the alt-Right’s guru, Samuel Francis.

Another staffer for Sen. East was John Rees, one of the most loathsome professional snitches of the post-McCarthy era, who collected files on suspected leftists, labor activists and liberal donors. I’ll have to save John Rees for another post — he really belongs in a category by himself, proof of Schopenhauer’s maxim that this world is run by demons.

These were the people who first cooked up the “disinformation” panic. You can’t separate the Sam Francises, Orrin Hatches, John Easts et al from today’s panic-mongering over disinformation — you can only try to make sense of why, what is it about our culture’s ruling factions that brings them together on this sort of xenophobic witch-hunt, even when they see themselves as so diametrically opposed on so many other issues. I don’t think this is something as simple as hypocrisy — it’s actually quite consistent: Establishment faction wakes up to a world it doesn’t recognize and loathes and feels threatened by, and blames it not on themselves or anything domestic, but rather on the most plausible alien conspiracy they can reach for: Russian barbarians. Anti-Russian xenophobia is burned into the Establishment culture’s DNA; it’s a xenophobia that both dominant factions, liberal or conservative, view as an acceptable xenophobia. When poorer “white working class” Americans feel threatened and panic, their xenophobia tends to be aimed at other ethnics — Latinos and Muslims these days — a xenophobia that the Establishment views as completely immoral and unacceptable, completely beyond the pale. The thought never occurs to them that perhaps all forms of xenophobia are bad, all bring with them a lot of violence and danger, it just depends on who’s threatened and who’s doing the threatening…

The subversion scare and moral panic were crucial in resetting the culture for the Reagan counter-revolution. Those who opposed Reagan’s plans, domestically and overseas, would be labeled “dupes” of Kremlin “active measures” and “disinformation” conspiracies, acting on behalf of Moscow whether they knew it or not. The panic incubated in Denton’s subcommittee investigations provided political cover for vast new powers given to the CIA, FBI, NSA and other spy and police agencies to spy on Americans. Fighting Russian “active measures” grew over the years into a massive surveillance program against Americans, particularly anyone involved in opposing Reagan’s dirty wars in Central America, anyone opposing nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants, and anyone involved in providing sanctuary to refugees from south of the border. The “active measures” panic even led to FBI secret investigations into liberal members of Congress, some of whom wound up in a secret “FBI terrorist photo album”.

I’ll get to that “FBI Terrorist Photo Album” story later. There’s a lot of recent “Kremlin disinformation” history to recover, since it seems every last memory cell has been zapped out of existence.

After Reagan’s inauguration (the most expensive, lavish inauguration ball in White House history), Senator Denton sent a chill through the liberal and independent media world with all the talk coming out of his committee about targeting activists, civil rights lawyers and journalists. Denton tried to come off as reasonable some of the times; other times, he came right out and said it: “disinformation” is terrorism:

“When I speak of a threat, I do not just mean that an organization is, or is about to be, engaged in violent criminal activity. I believe many share the view that support groups that produce propaganda, disinformation or legal assistance may be even more dangerous than those who actually throw the bombs.”

Congratulations Mother Jones, you’ve come a long way, baby!

Next post, I’ll recover some of the early committee hearings, and the rightwing hucksters, creeps and spooks who fed Denton’s committee.

Mark Ames is co-host of the Radio War Nerd podcast with Gary Brecher (aka John Dolan). Subscribe here.

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Posted: June 2nd, 2017

I made the mistake of listening to NPR last week to find out what Conventional Wisdom had to say about Trump firing Comey, on the assumption that their standardized Mister-Rogers-on-Nyquil voice tones would rein in the hysteria pitch a little. And on the surface, it did—the NPR host and guests weren’t directly shrieking “the world is ending! We’re all gonna die SHEEPLE!” the way they were on CNN. But in a sense they were screaming “fire!”, if you know how to distinguish the very minute pitch level differences in the standard NPR Nyquil voice.

The host of the daytime NPR program asked his guests how serious, and how “unprecedented” Trump’s decision to fire his FBI chief was. The guests answers were strange: they spoke about “rule of law” and “violating the Constitution” but then switched to Trump “violating norms”—and back again, interchanging “norms” and “laws” as if they’re synonyms. One of the guests admitted that Trump firing Comey was 100% legal, but that didn’t seem to matter in this talk about Trump having abandoned rule-of-law for a Putinist dictatorship. These guys wouldn’t pass a high school civics class, but there they were, garbling it all up. What mattered was the proper sense of panic and outrage—I’m not sure anyone really cared about the actual legality of the thing, or the legal, political or “normative” history of the FBI.

For starters, the FBI hardly belongs in the same set with concepts like “constitutional” or “ rule of law.” That’s because the FBI was never established by a law. US Lawmakers refused to approve an FBI bureau over a century ago when it was first proposed by Teddy Roosevelt. So he ignored Congress, and went ahead and set it up by presidential fiat. That’s one thing the civil liberties crowd hates discussing — how centralized US political power is in the executive branch, a feature in the constitutional system put there by the holy Founders.

In the late 1970s, at the tail end of our brief Glasnost, there was a lot of talk in Washington about finally creating a legal charter for the FBI—70 years after its founding. A lot of serious ink was spilled trying to transform the FBI from an extralegal secret police agency to something legal and defined. If you want to play archeologist to America’s recent history, you can find this in the New York Times’ archives, articles with headlines like “Draft of Charter for F.B.I. Limits Inquiry Methods”:

The Carter Administration will soon send to Congress the first governing charter for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The proposed charter imposes extensive but not absolute restrictions on the bureau’s employment of controversial investigative techniques, .including the use of informers, undercover agents and covert criminal activity.

The charter also specifies the duties and powers of the bureau, setting precise standards and procedures for the initiation ,and conduct of investigations. It specifically requires the F.B.I. to observe constitutional rights and establishes safeguards against unchecked harassment, break‐ins and other abuses.

…followed by the inevitable lament, like this editorial from the Christian Science Monitor a year later, “Don’t Forget the FBI Charter”. Which of course we did forget—that was Reagan’s purpose and value for the post-Glasnost reaction: forgetting. As historian Athan Theoharis wrote, “After 1981, Congress never seriously considered again any of the FBI charter proposals.”

The origins of the FBI have been obscured both because of its dubious legality and because of its original political purpose—to help a post-Gilded Age president battle the all-powerful American capitalists. It wasn’t that Teddy Roosevelt was a radical leftist—he was a Progressive Republican, which sounds like an oxymoron today but which was mainstream and ascendant politics in his time. Roosevelt was probably the first president since Andrew Jackson to try to smash concentrated wealth-power, or at least some of it. He could be brutally anti-labor, but so were the powerful capitalists he fought, and so were all the structures of government power already. He met little opposition pursuing his imperial Social Darwinist ambitions outside America’s borders. But he had a much harder time when it came to battling the powerful capitalists at home, who got in the way of Roosevelt’s most honorable political obsession: preserving forests, parks and public lands, and protecting them from greedy capitalists. An early FBI memo to Hoover about the FBI’s origins explains,

“Roosevelt, in his characteristic dynamic fashion, asserted that the plunderers of the public domain would be prosecuted and brought to justice.”

According to New York Times reporter Tim Weiner’s Enemies: A History of the FBI, it was the Oregon land fraud scandal of 1905-6 that put the idea of an FBI in TR’s hyperactive mind. The scandal involved leading Oregon politicians helping railroad tycoon Edward Harriman illegally sell off pristine Oregon forest lands to timber interests, and it ended with an Oregon senator and the state’s only two House representatives criminally charged and put on trial—along with dozens of other Oregonians. Basically, they were raping the state’s public lands and forests like colonists stripping a foreign country—and that stuck in TR’s craw.

TR wanted his attorney general—Charles Bonaparte (yes, he really was a descendant of that Bonaparte)—to make a full report on the rampant land fraud scams that the robber barons were running to despoil the American West, and which threatened TR’s vision of land and forest conservation and parks. Bonaparte created an investigative team from the US Secret Service, but TR thought their report was a “whitewash” and proposed a new separate federal investigative service within Bonaparte’s Department of Justice that would report only to the Attorney General.

Until then, the US government had to rely on private contractors like the notorious, dreaded Pinkerton Agency, who were great at strikebreaking, clubbing workers and shooting organizers, but not so good at taking down down robber barons, who happened to also be important clients for the private detective agencies.

In early 1908, Attorney General Bonaparte wrote to Congress asking for the legal authority (and budget funds) to create a “permanent detective force” under the DOJ. Congress rebelled, denouncing it as a plan to create an American okhrana. Democrat Joseph Sherley wrote that “spying on men and prying into what would ordinarily be considered their private affairs” went against “American ideas of government”; Rep. George Waldo, a New York Republican, said the proposed FBI was a “great blow to freedom and to free institutions if there should arise in this country any such great central secret-service bureau as there is in Russia.”

So Congress’s response was the opposite, banning Bonaparte’s DOJ from spending any funds at all on a proposed FBI. Another Congressman wrote another provision into the budget bill banning the DOJ from hiring Secret Service employees for any sort of FBI type agency. So Bonaparte waited until Congress took its summer recess, set aside some DOJ funds, recruited some Secret Service agents, and created a new federal detective bureau with 34 agents. This was how the FBI was born. Congress wasn’t notified until the end of 1908, in a few lines in a standard report — “oh yeah, forgot to tell you—the executive branch went ahead and created an American okhrana because, well, the ol’ joke about dogs licking their balls. Happy New Year!”

The sordid history of America’s extralegal secret police—initially named the Bureau of Investigation, changed to the FBI (“Federal”) in the 30’s, is mostly a history of xenophobic panic-mongering, illegal domestic spying, mass roundups and plans for mass-roundups, false entrapment schemes, and planting what Russians call “kompromat”— compromising information about a target’s sex life—to blackmail or destroy American political figures that the FBI didn’t like.

The first political victim of J Edgar Hoover’s kompromat was Louis Post, the assistant secretary of labor under Woodrow Wilson. Post’s crime was releasing over 1,000 alleged Reds from detention facilities near the end of the FBI’s Red Scare crackdown, when they jailed and deported untold thousands on suspicion of being Communists. The FBI’s mass purge began with popular media support in 1919, but by the middle of 1920, some (not the FBI) were starting to get a little queasy. A legal challenge to the FBI’s mass purges and exiles in Boston ended with a federal judge denouncing the FBI. After that ruling, assistant secretary Louis Post, a 71-year-old well-meaning progressive, reviewed the cases against the last 1500 detainees that the FBI wanted to deport, and found that there was absolutely nothing on at least 75 percent of the cases. Post’s review threatened to undo thousands more FBI persecutions of alleged Moscow-controlled radicals.

So one of the FBI’s most ambitious young agents, J Edgar Hoover, collected kompromat on Post and his alleged associations with other alleged Moscow-controlled leftists, and gave the file to the Republican-controlled House of Representatives—which promptly announced it would hold hearings to investigate Post as a left subversive. The House tried to impeach Post, but ultimately he defended himself. Post’s lawyer compared his political persecutors to the okhrana (Russia, again!): “We in America have sunk to the level of the government of Russia under the Czarist regime,” describing the FBI’s smear campaign as “even lower in some of their methods than the old Russian officials.”

Under Harding, the FBI had a new chief, William Burns, who made headlines blaming the terror bombing attack on Wall Street of 1920 that killed 34 people on a Kremlin-run conspiracy. The FBI claimed it had a highly reliable inside source who told them that Lenin sent $30,000 to the Soviets’ diplomatic mission in New York, which was distributed to four local Communist agents who arranged the Wall Street bombing. The source claimed to have personally spoken with Lenin, who boasted that the bombing was so successful he’d ordered up more.

The only problem was that the FBI’s reliable source, a Jewish-Polish petty criminal named Wolf Lindenfeld, turned out to be a bullshitter—nicknamed “Windy Linde”—who thought his fake confession about Lenin funding the bombing campaign would get him out of Poland’s jails and set up in a comfortable new life in New York.

By 1923, the FBI had thoroughly destroyed America’s communist and radical labor movements—allowing it to focus on its other favorite pastime: spying on and destroying political opponents. The FBI spied on US Senators who supported opening diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union: Idaho’s William Borah, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee; Thomas Walsh of the Judiciary Committee, and Burton K Wheeler, the prairie Populist senator from Montana, who visited the Soviet Union and pushed for diplomatic relations. Harding’s corrupt Attorney General Dougherty denounced Sen. Wheeler as “the Communist leader in the Senate” and “no more a Democrat than Stalin, his comrade in Moscow.” Dougherty accused Sen. Wheeler of being part of a conspiracy “to capture, by deceit and design, as many members of the Senate as possible and to spread through Washington and the cloakrooms of Congress a poison gas as deadly as that which sapped and destroyed brave soldiers in the last war.”

Hoover, now a top FBI official, quietly fed kompromat to journalists he cultivated, particularly an AP reporter named Richard Whitney, who published a popular book in 1924, “Reds In America” alleging Kremlin agents “had an all-pervasive influence over American institutions; they had infiltrated every corner of American life.” Whitney named Charlie Chaplin as a Kremlin agent, along with Felix Frankfurter and members of the Senate pushing for recognition of the Soviet Union. That killed any hope for diplomatic recognition for the next decade.

Then the first Harding scandals broke—Teapot Dome, Veterans Affairs, bribery at the highest rungs. When Senators Wheeler and Walsh opened bribery investigations, the FBI sent agents to the senators’ home state to drum up false bribery charges against Sen. Wheeler. The charges were clearly fake, and a jury dismissed the charges. But Attorney General Dougherty was indicted for fraud and forced to resign, as was his FBI chief Burns—but not Burns’ underling Hoover, who stayed in the shadows.

Under FDR, the FBI’s powers and its mass surveillance programs were greater than ever. When FDR died and Truman took over, he was both intrigued by that power, and horrified by it as Hoover ingratiated himself to the president with kompromat files on other political figures. A few weeks after taking office, Truman wrote in his diary,

“We want no Gestapo or Secret Police. FBI is tending in that direction. They are dabbling in sex-life scandals and plain blackmail … This must stop.”

With the Cold War, the FBI became obsessed with homosexuals as America’s Fifth Column under Moscow’s control. Homosexuals, the FBI believed, were susceptible to Kremlin kompromat—so the FBI collected and disseminated its own kompromat on alleged American homosexuals, supposedly to protect America from the Kremlin. In the early 1950s, Hoover launched the Sex Deviates Program to spy on American homosexuals and purge them from public life. The FBI built up 300,000 pages of files on suspected homosexuals and contacted their employers, local law enforcement and universities to “to drive homosexuals from every institution of government, higher learning, and law enforcement in the nation,” according to Tim Weiner’s book Enemies. No one but the FBI knows exactly how many Americans’ lives and careers were destroyed by the FBI’s Sex Deviants Program but Hoover—who never married, lived with his mother until he was 40, and traveled everywhere with his “friend” Clyde Tolson.

In the 1952 election, Hoover was so committed to helping the Republicans and Eisenhower win that he compiled and disseminated a 19-page kompromat file alleging that his Democratic Party rival Adlai Stevenson was gay. The FBI’s file on Stevenson was kept in the Sex Deviants Program section—it included libelous gossip, claiming that Stevenson was one of Illinois’ “best known homosexuals” who went by the name “Adeline” in gay cruising circles.

In the 1960s, Hoover and his FBI chiefs collected kompromat on the sex lives of JFK and Martin Luther King. Hoover presented some of his kompromat on JFK to Bobby Kennedy, in a concern-trollish way claiming to “warn” him that the president was opening himself up to blackmail. It was really a way for Hoover to let the despised Kennedy brothers know he could destroy them, should they try to Comey him out of his FBI office. Hoover’s kompromat on MLK’s sex life was a particular obsession of his—he now believed that African-Americans, not homosexuals, posed the greatest threat to become a Kremlin Fifth Column. The FBI wiretapped MLK’s private life, collecting tapes of his affairs with other women, which a top FBI official then mailed to Martin Luther King’s wife, along with a note urging King to commit suicide.

FBI letter anonymously mailed to Martin Luther King Jr’s wife, along with kompromat sex tapes

After JFK was murdered, when Bobby Kennedy ran for the Senate in 1964, he recounted another disturbing FBI/kompromat story that President Johnson shared with him on the campaign trail. LBJ told Bobby about a stack of kompromat files — FBI reports “detailing the sexual debauchery of members of the Senate and House who consorted with prostitutes.” LBJ asked RFK if the kompromat should be leaked selectively to destroy Republicans before the 1964 elections. Kennedy recalled,

“He told me he had spent all night sitting up and reading the files of the FBI on all these people. And Lyndon talks about that information and material so freely. Lyndon talks about everybody, you see, with everybody. And of course that’s dangerous.”

Kennedy had seen some of the same FBI kompromat files as attorney general, but he was totally opposed to releasing such unsubstantiated kompromat—such as, say, the Trump piss files—because doing so would “destroy the confidence that people in the United States had in their government and really make us a laughingstock around the world.”

Imagine that.

Which brings me to the big analogy every hack threw around last week, calling Trump firing Comey “Nixonian.” Actually, what Trump did was more like the very opposite of Nixon, who badly wanted to fire Hoover in 1971-2, but was too afraid of the kompromat Hoover might’ve had on him to make the move. Nixon fell out with his old friend and onetime mentor J Edgar Hoover in 1971, when the ailing old FBI chief refused to get sucked in to the Daniel Ellsberg/Pentagon Papers investigation, especially after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the New York Times. Part of the reason Nixon created his Plumbers team of black bag burglars was because Hoover had become a bit skittish in his last year on this planet—and that drove Nixon crazy.

Nixon called his chief of staff Haldeman:

Nixon: I talked to Hoover last night and Hoover is not going after this case [Ellsberg] as strong as I would like. There’s something dragging him.

Haldeman: You don’t have the feeling the FBI is really pursuing this?

Nixon: Yeah, particularly the conspiracy side. I want to go after everyone. I’m not so interested in Ellsberg, but we have to go after everybody who’s a member of this conspiracy.

Hoover’s ambitious deputies in the FBI were smelling blood, angling to replace him. His number 3, Bill Sullivan (who sent MLK the sex tapes and suicide note) was especially keen to get rid of Hoover and take his place. So as J Edgar was stonewalling the Daniel Ellsberg investigation, Sullivan showed up in a Department of Justice office with two suitcases packed full of transcripts and summaries of illegal wiretaps that Kissinger and Nixon had ordered on their own staff and on American journalists. The taps were ordered in Nixon’s first months in the White House in 1969, to plug up the barrage of leaks, the likes of which no one had ever seen before. Sullivan took the leaks from J Edgar’s possession and told the DOJ official that they needed to be hidden from Hoover, who planned to use them as kompromat to blackmail Nixon.

Nixon decided he was going to fire J Edgar the next day. This was in September, 1971. But the next day came, and Nixon got scared. So he tried to convince his attorney general John Mitchell to fire Hoover for him, but Mitchell said only the President could fire J Edgar Hoover. So Nixon met him for breakfast, and, well, he just didn’t have the guts. Over breakfast, Hoover flattered Nixon and told him there was nothing more in the world he wanted than to see Nixon re-elected. Nixon caved; the next day, J Edgar Hoover unceremoniously fired his number 3 Bill Sullivan, locking him out of the building and out of his office so that he couldn’t take anything with him. Sullivan was done.

The lesson here, I suppose, is that if an FBI director doesn’t want to be fired, it’s best to keep your kompromat a little closer to your chest, as a gun to hold to your boss’s head. Comey’s crew already released the piss tapes kompromat on Trump—the damage was done. What was left to hold back Trump from firing Comey? “Laws”? The FBI isn’t even legal. “Norms” would be the real reason. Which pretty much sums up everything Trump has been doing so far. We’ve learned the past two decades that we’re hardly a nation of laws, at least not when it comes to the plutocratic ruling class. What does bind them are “norms”—and while those norms may mean everything to the ruling class, it’s an open question how much these norms mean to a lot of Americans outside that club.

Note: Photo at top of this article is a still from the kompromat video of (allegedly) Russian attorney general Yuri Skuratov with a prostitute, leading to Skuratov’s firing as he was investigating Yeltsin family corruption — and to the promotion of the FSB minister who arranged this kompromat, Vladimir Putin.

Mark Ames is co-host of the Radio War Nerd podcast with Gary Brecher (aka John Dolan). Subscribe here.

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Posted: May 15th, 2017

 

You may not have heard about this, but a few weeks ago, in mid-April, the Taliban scored its deadliest battle victory since the US invasion in 2001. Ten Taliban militants slaughtered at least 144 Afghan Army soldiers and wounded 60+ more, at an Afghan army base just outside of Mazar-i-Sharif in the north of the country.

The attack took place about a week after Trump dropped the largest conventional bomb the US has ever used on an area in eastern Afghanistan. I’m starting to wonder if the MOAB was as much a paranoid, desperate attempt to “send a message” to Russia and Iran as it was meant to kill Islamic State fighters in the area, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

The attack on the Afghan Army base in the north was a turkey shoot: The Afghan Army soldiers were largely unarmed and caught by surprise, just emerging from Friday prayers for lunch on their base, when about half a dozen Taliban militants stormed the base with help from four Taliban plants inside the Afghan Army base. The killing lasted 5 hours. The Taliban say they killed 500, and some witnesses claim many more than 140 were killed. It’s even possible that one or two of the attackers got away.

Everything about this slaughter is bad news if you’re looking at it from the US point of view. The Taliban said the attack was in retaliation for the killings of two of their shadow province leaders in the north of the country—and that, along with the ease with which they carried this out, suggests they could do a lot more of these types of massacres if they felt they needed to. The way the Taliban tells it, the massacre was more like a warning: “Don’t kill our leaders like that—we can fuck you up much worse than you can us.”

You can see in this AFP photo report how bad the attack must’ve been. But it’s details like this that make you realize how much worse it can get—and will get:

They were dressed in Afghan army uniforms, multiple sources have told AFP, fuelling suspicions of complicity on the 30,000-strong base, where Western instructors are sometimes called on as part of NATO’s training, assist and advise mission.

At the second checkpoint one officer became suspicious, the source said — only to have two of the militants trigger their suicide vests, as the rest hurtled past at full speed towards the mosque, roughly a kilometre from the entrance.

They knew the base, the source said, stressing the meticulous preparation involved — four of them had trained there in the past, and all carried valid passes.

They knew that in the part of the base they were headed no soldier was allowed to carry a weapon.

The story out of Afghanistan has been getting worse and worse since at least 2007 if not earlier, and nothing we’ve done—Obama’s Surge, or Obama’s non-withdrawal withdrawal; Britain’s alleged withdrawal in 2014, or Britain’s not-really-withdrawal a year later—seems to work. (Packing up and leaving once and for all is one of those pipe-dream ideas that’s far too obvious for any DC hack to consider “credible.”)

Last year alone, a record 6,800 US-backed Afghan Army soldiers and police were killed, an increase of 35% over 2015. And this year is off to such a bad start that 2016 might be remembered fondly as the peaceful salad days. In just the first two months of this year, during what’s usually the Taliban’s winter recess, 807 Afghan Army soldiers were killed, a figure described as “shockingly high” by the US government’s Special Inspector for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR).

And then came April’s massacre, the single worst defeat by the US-backed Afghan military since we invaded in 2001—10 Taliban fighters killed or wounded over 200 of our soldiers. That’s about as clear a sign as any that something is seriously, seriously wrong in Afghanistan, in a very familiar and grim way—as in, ARVN-familiar.

Only about half of Afghanistan is still under nominal control of the US-backed regime in Kabul, and that territory keeps shrinking fast. When things go this badly, you need to either accept responsibility for your failures and be held accountable for them—or blame a bogeyman that everyone in your camp is already prepared to believe in? A lot of jobs and contracts are at stake here, along with military careers and promotions. Accepting responsibility and admitting failure is bad for careers, and bad for contractor lobbying. If you want to pump more money out of taxpayers, you can’t admit you’re failing in a lost cause—you need to scare Washington, to make them think they’ll be in trouble if they don’t fork over the public’s money.

As you can guess, finding that bogeyman isn’t exactly rocket science. By now, even your dog knows who to blame: “Russia is sending weapons to Taliban, top U.S. general confirms” reads a Washington Post headline from April 24.

Actually the US general in charge of Afghanistan, John Nicholson, wasn’t quite as committal in that assessment as the WaPo would’ve liked—he said, “We continue to get reports of this [Russian] assistance.” So the WaPo did what all American hacks do today and went straight to their beloved “anonymous US official” for the money quotes and evidence:

A senior U.S. military official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence on the issue, said the Russians have increased their supply of equipment and small arms to the Taliban over the past 18 months. The official said the Russians have been sending weapons, including medium and heavy machine guns, to the Taliban under the guise that the materiel would be used to fight the Islamic State in eastern Afghanistan. Instead, the official said, the weapons were showing up in some of Afghanistan’s southern provinces, including Helmand and Kandahar — both areas with little Islamic State presence.

That’s quite an odd, slippery paragraph of damning evidence, considering the sorts of things these anonymous US military/intelligence officials are usually quoted saying. Here, weapons in a country that’s been a war zone and small arms bazaar for four decades show up in the wrong province—and that’s proof of Russian intentions? It may be true, but it sure is bizarrely thin proof to back that claim up.

About a week earlier, the WaPo ran another of these “Russia arming the Taliban” stories that’ve been creeping towards the center of our media narrative about Afghanistan lately. This one was given a headline that reads like a playground taunt:

“While the U.S. wasn’t looking, Russia and Iran began carving out a bigger role in Afghanistan”.

If you actually try making sense of the article, paragraph to paragraph—it makes almost no sense at all. That may be more a reflection of the tangled reality on the ground than anything else—but the point is that the headline and thesis of the article, which is what most people will read and remember, finds no coherent support in the body of the article itself, were anyone to actually read it.

And indeed it makes little sense that Russia would agree to a serious alliance with its old enemy the Taliban—which allied with Chechen Islamist separatists in the late 1990s and early 2000s, harbored and trained them, and which threatened Russia’s closest ally in Central Asia, Tajikistan. It makes perhaps even less sense that Shia Iran— which borders Afghanistan—would ally with a radical sectarian Sunni group like the Taliban, which had waged a brutal sectarian war on the Shia Hazara as well as the Persian-speaking Tajiks.

What does make sense is that both Iran and Russia—which supported the initial US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, only to see it go from bad to worse—would be actively positioning themselves for the inevitable moment when the US and NATO pull out of Afghanistan for good, and that moment looks like it’s accelerating. The US has had a bad habit of making a mess of countries it “liberates”—then withdrawing in a fit of grievances about how the locals don’t appreciate them, or can’t manage their own affairs, or, as with Libya, out of regret for doing “stupid shit.” Iran and Russia are neighbors of Afghanistan, and logic would tell you that if you lost to the mujahideen in the 1980s, and the West couldn’t defeat them since the turn of the century—then you better start finding ways to work with them, because chances are you’re going to be stuck with them one way or another.

This explains why both Russia and the Taliban have admitted to holding talks about a political solution. Some on the Russian side have said publicly they think they can work with the Taliban, that the Taliban has transformed from an internationalist Islamist movement to a purely nationalist movement. That sounds like wishful thinking if they really believe it.

There are other reasons Russia would want to work with the Taliban—worries about the Taliban threatening Tajikistan, again; create problems for US forces there, because defeat in war leaves raw wounds that can last decades; to get some leverage with the Taliban before their inevitable return to power; to get some leverage against the US that can be bargained away later for a deal in Syria or Ukraine, or to end sanctions . . . but the guff about Russia “arming the Taliban” seems like a stretch, and so far hasn’t been supported by evidence, or even with much conviction by the US military.

But screaming about Russians arming and allying with the Taliban helps guys like John McCain and Linsday Graham push for more soldiers in Afghanistan, more budget outlays, more weapons, more New Cold War mongering. There’s nothing subtle about this: McCain and Graham wrote an op-ed in the WaPo calling for more troops in Afghanistan—citing the WaPo article on the alleged Russian-Taliban alliance as proof we need thousands more troops there. Talk about deja vu…

It’s also strange to be floating conspiracies about Russian arms making their way to Kandahar bazaars, when we all know who has been backing the Taliban: the ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence service, with funding from the Saudis and the Gulf monarchies. The ISI nurtured, trained, equipped and advised the Taliban from its birth in Pakistani refugee camps, to its conquest of most of Afghanistan in the mid-late 1990s; and the Saudis and Gulf monarchs sponsored the whole thing. This isn’t a big secret. Just a few months ago, the New York Times did a big exposé headlined “Saudis Bankroll Taliban, Even as King Officially Supports Afghan Government”. But stories like that are just bummers, so everyone willfully forgets it and goes back to its version of Pokémon Go—something like “Putínmon Go” where every DC hack and military contractor runs around virtual-Afghanistan catching virtual-Putínmon phantoms…

There’s also a question about another possible sponsor: Turkmenistan, which borders Afghanistan in the northwest. Before 9/11, Turkmenistan had friendly relations with the Taliban. After 9/11, they saw the writing on the wall and cut off support. But a couple of months ago, Ismail Khan, the warlord who more or less controls Herat, accused Turkmenistan of renewing their old friendly ties with the Taliban—arming the group, giving them refuge and providing cover for their local commanders.

An honest assessment would compare whatever support Russia and Iran have given the Taliban, if at all—to the support given the Taliban by our allies Pakistan and the “moderate” regimes in the Gulf—as well as Turkmenistan, the weirdest regime on earth, and one who we won’t say one bad word about because Turkmenistan hasn’t been friendly with Russians since independence. And as we’ve learned once again, for the umpteenth time, the best way to get the human rights poodles from snapping at your ankles is to snap “Russia!” at their owners, and you’ll get the sort of “sanctions relief” extended to Europe’s last dictator Lukashenko.

The real story here may be a broader realignment going on—with the US moving closer to India to counter China as part of Obama’s half-baked “Asia Pivot”—a realignment that’s pushing Pakistan closer to Russia for the first time. But that’s for another blog post. And I doubt that realignment will come any time soon, even if they’re flirting with it around the edges—the ties between the Pakistan military and intelligence with the US and the UK, and the “moderates” in the Gulf, are far too deep.

I’ll end this with an old Siberian punk song, “Afghanskii Syndrome”—it’s a cover version by the great Egor Letov of a song by another Siberian punk band from Tyumen, from 1990, just after the Soviet withdrawal. A rough translation of the final verse:

What’s it mean to lose a war

It means to be ashamed of medals

It means to return to your homeland

Where they shun you like you’re a cattle rustler

What’s it mean to lose a war

It means to learn how to shoot

It means to return and live like a coiled spring

Having grown used to killing with ease

Mark Ames is co-host of the Radio War Nerd podcast with Gary Brecher (aka John Dolan). Subscribe here.

 

 

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Posted: May 7th, 2017

Last week, protesters stormed Macedonia’s parliament injuring over 100 people, among them almost a dozen members of the new ruling parliamentary coalition. The ostensible reason was the naming of an ethnic Albanian in the majority Slavic Eastern Orthodox country—but others had even simpler explanation.

“Macedonia ‘at risk from Russian meddling’”—the Sunday Times screamed, describing the protesters who stormed parliament as “pro-Kremlin thugs.” The Economist blamed the violence on “a party backed by Russia” while the Washington DC think-tank CEPA—funded by the Pentagon and an A-list of military contractors—warned about “Russia’s New Offensive in Macedonia” while on social media, former journalist Maxim Eristavi tweeted,

“Russian fingerprints are all over this dangerous mess in Macedonia. Russia-controlled media are in full hysteria mode inciting ethnic hatred”.

Indeed.

We just did a Radio War Nerd interview with the editor of the Balkanist, Lily Lynch, who’s spent the last several years living in Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, and in neighboring Serbia, and who found this outburst of “Russia did it!” not just wrong, but dangerously stupid.

Local politics anywhere in the world are incredibly messy and complicated and often times just plain stupid-crazy — all the more so in a compressed region like the Balkans— and trying to superimpose a simplistic DC-oriented Cold War narrative, blaming local problems on that dastardly alien villain, Ming The Merciless, is just fake news for respectable people. The real story is messy, granular, more local than you’d care to know, mostly involving Macedonia’s political parties, their constituencies and the meager spoils between them. There is some outside meddling—from Macedonia’s larger neighbors (Greece, Albania, Kosovo, Serbia, Bulgaria) from the EU and the US (which strong-armed the corrupt center-right party VMRO into calling early elections last December). Even George Soros has meddled in Macedonia in the past, though his influence there has waned considerably, just as local hysteria over Soros’ influence has reached fever pitch.

Excerpt from a 1995 New Yorker profile on Soros

The best quick summary of last week’s events, according to a lot of people familiar with the region I talked to, is this piece by Dimitar Bechev—“What Is Happening in Macedonia? It’s not an ethnic conflict, and it’s not Russia’s fault”. As Bechev and Lynch and others tell it, there really isn’t a good guy or a bad guy in this power struggle. It’s more like what the detective says in Zero Effect: “There’s just…a bunch of guys.”

The deeper you dig into the minutiae of Macedonian politics, the harder it is to then retell that story to a foreign audience. Which is one reason why it’s easier for a writer/editor to blame the mess on Putin, or on Soros, or on “ethnic tensions” between the majority Orthodox Slavs and the minority Muslim Albanians. Not only does that simplify the narrative, but it also appeals to built-in audiences—particularly audiences with resources that could be useful for Macedonians in their domestic political struggles. The audience for blaming “Putin” is the EU, NATO, and Washington, whose resources the opposition SDSM party has been leveraging to retake power; the audience for blaming “Soros” includes American neocons and Republicans in Congress, who’ve been backing Macedonia’s corrupt center-right VMRO party. So you have GOP Senators led by Mike Lee and Ted Cruz writing open letters to Tillerson demanding an end to the liberal Soros-State Department plot against Macedonia’s center-right government, because VMRO has convinced some Republicans that Macedonia’s problems are really a proxy war between American liberals and conservatives; and you have others publishing in the Washington DC insider rag, The Hill, warning “GOP Senators, Don’t Side with Russia on Macedonia”—again falsely painting the domestic political fights as an extension of our own.

The point is that these simplified, superimposed framings serve a political lobbying purpose—as well as dumbing down the story to make it easy for dumb-dumbs to read. Sleazy and stupid—that’s how DC likes ’em.

And then there’s always Dana Rohrabacher, the Ur-rightwing hippie from the beaches of Orange County. Rohrabacher’s contribution to this mess came a couple of months ago, when he told an Albanian TV interviewer that Macedonia wasn’t a real country, and that it should be divided up between Albania and Bulgaria—which didn’t go down well in Macedonia. If Rohrabacher put any thought into that comment at all, he was just pandering to his Albanian audience. That’s a big if—considering this is the same guy who once dressed up in drag calling himself “Diana” to visit Sirhan Sirhan in prison, to “solve” Sirhan’s 1968 assassination of RFK.

And yet even this stupid sleazy Rohrabacher story calling for the dismantling of Macedonia couldn’t be reported without somehow pinning it all on Putin. Foreign Policy wrote that of course Rohrabacher would try to destabilize the Balkans—after all he was “once called ‘Putin’s favorite congressman'” [which links to a headline in Politico, the same outlet that still claims Putin offered Poland to carve up Ukraine, a story whose only source, Radislaw Sikorski, retracted it, leading all the other media to issue retractions on the fake news story—except of course Politico]. The Independent just flat-out lied, taking a warning by Lavrov that outside powers were trying to break up Macedonia, which Russia opposes, as an endorsement by Lavrov of that plan:

Mr Rohrabacher’s comments echo a suggestion by Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov. In 2015, he said that “ideas have been floated” about giving the Republic of Macedonia “to Albania, and another part to Bulgaria”.

You can tell by the weird carve-up of Lavrov’s quote that something’s wrong here—and something is wrong. Lavrov was actually arguing that Macedonia was being pressured by its neighbors and the EU to join sanctions against Russia, and being threatened with dissolution if they didn’t obey. This is hardly an endorsement; it’s just crude quote-chopping to fit a pre-ordered New Cold War narrative. But hey, who’s got time to fact-check?

We’re seeing this same superimposed narrative, with Russia as the useful foil, in a lot of places these days. In Albania, opposition protesters have been holding a Maidan-like tent city protest in front of the prime minister’s office since February, demanding fresh elections. A little over a week ago, they vowed to “radicalize” the protests and bring transport to a standstill. So the prime minister, Edi Rama, is doing what a lot of politicians do—turning up the nationalism heat. A couple of weeks ago, Rama warned that Albania would merge with Kosovo, forming the dreaded “Greater Albania,” if EU talks didn’t go their way. Rama also heated up tensions in Macedonia by making sure every Macedonian knew he was exerting some influence over Macedonia’s Albanian political parties. This plays well with Albanian voters, but creates new problems for Rama in Washington and Brussels. So, on point, Albania’s foreign minister flew to Washington late last month warning that Albania was all that stood in the way of the Russian bogeyman.

And then in neighboring Montenegro, going into last October’s elections, the leader of the ruling party since 1991 accused Russia of financing Montenegro’s opposition parties, and then claimed to have busted a plot by Russian and Serbian nationalists to assassinate him. The Pulitzer team at the New York Times has regurgitated this line hook and sinker—the theory being that Russia is trying to destroy Montenegro’s independence and democracy in order to stop it from joining NATO.

Which would perhaps be plausible, but for a few things: First, the Montenegrin leader who claimed he was the target of the Russian assassination plot, Milo Djukanovic, is one of Europe’s leading mafia gangsters, a former Communist Party boss who ruled Montenegro like a Central Asian autocrat since 1991 (he just formally stepped aside for his anointed successor). In 2015, the OCCRP (Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project) named Djukanovic “2015 Man of the Year in Organized Crime” calling him “Europe’s last dictator” who “has built one of the most dedicated kleptocracies and organized crime havens in the world.” Djukanovic was indicted by Italian prosecutors for heading a billion-dollar cigarette smuggling ring with the Italian Mafia, in a crime wave that included numerous assassinations— including of investigative journalists. Ultimately Djukanovic was granted diplomatic immunity—many suspect he worked out a deal with western powers to move Montenegro into NATO in return for immunity. Another problem with this neat framing is that NATO has never been popular in Montenegro. Why? Because NATO bombed Montenegro in 1999, during the Kosovo War. Djukanovic understood what the polls were saying, which is why he refused to hold a popular referendum on the issue. Instead, he and the Montenegrin media beat the “Russia is undermining Montenegrin democracy [sic!]” drum to divide and conquer—and last month, Montenegro’s parliament voted to join NATO, with just under half the parliament members boycotting the vote.

And now DC insiders have figured out how to use this spin on a new front, Afghanistan. This is where the New Cold War framing gets serious. I’ll talk more about that shitshow tomorrow.

Mark Ames is co-host of the Radio War Nerd podcast with Gary Brecher (aka John Dolan). Subscribe here.

 

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Posted: May 5th, 2017

The Guardian just published a piece on Russia’s inequality problem — first and worst in the world, according to a new Credit Suisse report. Funny to see Credit Suisse wringing its hands over Russian inequality, given that bank’s active complicity in designing and profiting off the privatization of Russia in the early-mid 1990s. Shortly before Credit Suisse arrived in Russia, it was the most equal country on the planet; a few years after Credit Suisse arrived and pocketed up to hundreds of millions in profits, Russia was the most unequal country on earth, and it’s pretty much been that way since.

Credit Suisse’s new Russia branch was set up in 1992, and it was led by a young twenty-something American banker named Boris Jordan, the grandson of wealthy White Russian emigres. Jordan was key to the bank’s success, thanks to his cozy relationships with Russia’s neoliberal “young reformers” in charge of privatizing the former Communist country. In the first wave of voucher privatization—when all Russians were issued vouchers which they could then either convert into shares in a newly-privatized company, or sell off—Credit Suisse’s Boris Jordan gobbled up 17 million of Russia’s privatization vouchers, over 10 percent of the total.

Inside connections were the key. While working for Credit Suisse, Jordan advised the Yeltsin government on how to implement Russia’s disastrous voucher privatization scheme. Jordan worked together with the two of the most powerful US-backed Russian free-marketeers: Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, architect of the shock therapy program that led to the mass impoverishment of tens of millions of Russians; and Anatoly Chubais, architect of Russia’s privatization program, which created Russia’s new billionaire oligarch class. Gaidar’s shock therapy confiscated wealth from the masses; Chubais’ privatization concentrated wealth in a few hands. And Jordan’s Credit Suisse advised, traded off, and profited from this wealth transfer. This was the trio that played a central role in creating the inequality that Credit Suisse is now wringing its hands over. (You can read an interview with Jordan about how he co-advised the voucher implementation in 1992, which is stunning for a lot of reasons— he admits they sped up its implementation of voucher privatization to make sure that Russia’s parliament, i.e. representative democracy, couldn’t interfere with it. Democracy was not something anyone involved in Russia’s privatization in the 1990s gave a shit about.)

The conflicts-of-interest here were so over-the-top, they were almost impossible to wrap your head around: Credit Suisse banker Boris Jordan helped implement the voucher privatization scheme with Russia’s top political figures; and Credit Suisse massively profited off this same privatization scheme. And it was all done with the full backing and support of the US Treasury Department and the IMF.

(Another major beneficiary of Russian privatization vouchers was a murky hedge fund run by the billionaire Chandler brothers. They made a killing snapping up vouchers cheap, converting them into stakes in key Russian industries, and selling their stakes for huge profits. I wrote about them a couple of years ago because one of the Chandler brothers plowed some of his Russia loot into something called the Legatum Institute—a Dubai-based neocon front group that’s been bankrolling the “Russia disinformation panic!” for several years now, issuing report after report after report on the Kremlin disinformation scare by their protege Peter Pomerantsev. You have to let these vulture-capitalist billionaires wet their beaks a little, or they’ll raise an army of human rights activists to regime-change your ass.)

Shock therapy, first implemented in 1992 and not really ended until Russia’s devastating financial crash in 1998, was politically useful in that by confiscating the Russian middle-class’s and lower-class’s savings, it created a massively unequal society. And that alone drove Russia further from its Communist recent past, which was the political goal that justified everything.

In 1994, this same young Credit Suisse banker, Boris Jordan, told Forbes’ Paul Khlebnikov about a scheme he was trying to sell to the Yeltsin regime. It was called “loans-for-shares” and when it was finally adopted at the end of 1995, it resulted in what many considered the single largest plunder of public wealth in recorded history: The crown jewels of Russian industry—oil, gas, natural resources, telecoms, state banks—given away to a tiny group of connected bankers. It was this scheme, first devised by a Credit Suisse banker, that created Russia’s world-famous oligarchy.

The scheme went something like this: The Yeltsin regime announced in late 1995 auctions under which bankers would lend the government money in exchange for “temporary” control over the revenue streams of Russia’s largest and most valuable companies. After a period, the government would “repay” the “loans” and the banks would give the their large stakes back to the government.

In reality, every single “auction” was rigged by the winning bank, which paid next to nothing for its control over an oil company/nickel company/etc. Even the little money paid by this bank was often stolen from the state. That’s because Russia used a handful of private banks as authorized treasury institutions to transfer government salaries and other funds around the country. This allowed the same bankers who were authorized as state treasury banks to keep those funds for themseles rather than distribute them to the teachers, doctors and scientists as salaries—so they did what was in their rational self-interest and kept the money, delaying salary payments for months or even years at a time, while they used the funds for themselves to speculate, or to buy up assets in auctions they rigged for themselves. It was pure libertarian paradise on earth—everything von Hayek and von Mises dreamed of—in practice.

By the time the loans-for-shares was actually put into effect in late 1995, Credit Suisse’s Boris Jordan joined up with an anointed banker-oligarch, Vladimir Potanin, to set up their own investment bank, Renaissance Capital. They raised their first private equity fund, Sputnik Capital—with George Soros and Harvard University as co-investors—and Sputnik Capital went on to take advantage of the loans-for-shares investment opportunities, which had even more help from the fact that Yeltsin made Potanin his Finance Minister in 1996.

This sudden mass wealth transfer from the many to the few had a devastating effect on Russia’s population. Inflation in the first two years of shock therapy and voucher privatization ran at 1,354% in 1992, and 896% in 1993, while real incomes plunged 42% in 1992 alone; real wages in 1995 were half of where they were in 1990 (pensions in 1995 were only a quarter in real terms of where they were in 1990). According to very conservative official Russian statistics, GDP plunged 44% from 1992-1998 — others put the GDP crash even higher, 50% or more. By comparison the Soviet GDP fell 24% during its war with Nazi Germany, and the US’s GDP fell 30% during the Great Depression. So what happened in the 1990s was unprecedented for a major developed country—by the end of the decade and all of the Washington/financial industry-backed reforms, Russia was a basket case, a third-rate country with an even bleaker future. Capital investment had collapsed 85% during that decade—everyone was stripping assets, not investing in them. Domestic food production collapsed to half the levels during perestroika; and by 1999, anywhere from a third to half of Russians relied on food grown in their own gardens to eat. They’d reverted to subsistence farming after a decade of free market medicine.

All of this had a catastrophic effect on Russians’ health and lives. Male Russian life expectancy dropped from 68 years during the late Soviet era, to 56 in the mid-1990s, about where it had been a century earlier under the Tsar. Meanwhile, as births plunged and child poverty and malnutrition soared, Russia’s death-to-birth ratio reached levels not seen in the 20th century. According to Amherst economist David Kotz, over 6 million Russians died prematurely during the US-backed free-market reforms in the 1990s. What’s odd is how little pity or empathy has ever been shown for those Russians who were destroyed by the reforms we backed, advised funded, bribed, coerced, and were accessory to in every way. They weren’t entirely America’s fault; Yeltsin and his US-backed “market bolsheviks” had their own cynical, ideological and political reasons to restructure Russia’s political economy in the most elitist, hierarchical unequal manner possible. But if the US had acted differently, given how much influence the Clinton Administration had with the Yeltsin regime, things could certainly have turned out differently. The point is—they didn’t. The inequality was the surest sign of success. It only became something to wring our hands about later, a soft-power weapon to smack them with, now that we have little to zero influence over Russia.

It’s interesting that our literature is filled with plenty of official empathy for Weimar German victims of that country’s hyperinflation, but nothing of the sort for Russians of the 1990s, who were, it was argued, being ennobled and lifted up by the linear thread of liberal history—they were heading towards the bright market-based future, can’t let a few knocks and scratches distract us! Can’t make an omelet without cracking a few eggs, as the West’s Stalin apologists used to say.

Here, for example, is a typical cheerleader story about the new Russian inequality, published in Businessweek in 1996—a fluff job on Boris Jordan’s Russian backer, Vladimir Potanin. Notice how the headline/subheader make clear that the hero of this narrative is the Russian billionaire, and the villains are the “angry masses” of poor envious Russians:

The Battle for Russia’s Wealth

Can hugely rich new capitalists weather a backlash from the angry masses?

Russia’s answer to J.P. Morgan could not be less like the eccentric, bulbous-nosed original. Vladimir O. Potanin is a shy, athletic man of 35. Holding court in his rosewood-paneled office on Moscow’s Masha Poryvaeva Street, the president of Oneximbank quietly gives instructions to two strapping bodyguards at his door. Cool and controlled, Potanin is a standout in a group of dynamic businessmen who have seized huge slices of the economy.

Which reads a lot like this fluff job in the Los Angeles Times, published around the same time, headlined “Whiz-Kid Banker Named to Russian Cabinet”. Which reads a lot like a Businessweek followup up with even more shameless hagiography, headlined “The Most Powerful Man in Russia”. You can try reading that  last one if you want, but I recommend keeping a vomit bag close by—and a cyanide pill for good measure.

So this is the sordid and depressing backstory to the Credit Suisse report on Russian inequality—the story you definitely won’t and don’t read about in Credit Suisse’s own account. They’re a bank; their reports, while perhaps truthful, are far from The Truth—more like marketing pamphlets than serious scholarship.

Credit Suisse made a killing in Russia in the early-mid 1990s, dominating two-thirds of Russia’s capital markets deals—while tens of millions sank into desperate poverty. That too is inequality.

Jordan himself remained a powerful celebrity-investor through the early Putin era. In 1997, Boris Jordan was caught up in a major scandal surrounding the privatization of the national telecoms concern, Svyazinvest—which was won by a consortium that included Soros, Harvard, and a bank owned by Finance Minister Potanin and his partner, Mikhail Prokhorov, who today owns the Brooklyn Nets. The scandal was this: The government official in charge of auctioning off the telecoms to Soros-Harvard-Potanin-Jordan consortium, Alfred Kokh, had been given a shady $100,000 book advance by a shady Swiss company connected to Potanin’s bank. The book had not been written; the advance was unusually high; and the Swiss “publisher” which had never published a book before was itself incorporated and led by none other than Boris Jordan’s cousin, Tikhon Troyanos.

The revelations led to scandals, and Yeltsin was forced to fire his privatization chief Alfred Kokh, along with a handful of other corrupt US-backed “young reformers” caught getting paid on the eve of a rigged auction.

But what did it really matter? What really mattered to everyone who matters was the political structure of Russia’s economy. No longer egalitarian, no longer a threat to the neoliberal order—it now had the world’s most unequal society, and that was a good thing, because the new elites would identify their interests more with the interests of their Davos counterparts than with the interests of the “backwards” Russian masses, whose fate was their problem, not ours. This is when racist caricatures of the “backwards” Russian masses help—you don’t have to empathize with them, history is sending them to the trash heap of history, not you. The world was safe for business, and that was all the affirmation anyone needed to hear.

At the end of the Yeltsin era, I visited the sprawling suburban Moscow “compound” owned by Potanin and his banking partner, Mikhail Prokhorov, as well as Renaissance Capital—the bank first founded with Boris Jordan in the mid-1990s. It was a huge gated compound with several buildings, a mini-hotel, and a nightclub/concert hall. One of the first things I saw entering the gaming hall building was two familiar-looking men in track suits playing backgammon: Vladimir Potanin, billionaire oligarch; and Alfred Kokh, the fired, disgraced head of Yeltsin’s privatization committee.

The financial crisis of 1998 left Russia’s in complete tatters, and Boris Jordan was never the big shot that he had been before. His real value was providing cover for the new boss Vladimir Putin as he re-centralized power under Kremlin control. The first upstart oligarch that Putin took down was Vladimir Gusinsky. He was briefly jailed and then exiled to Israel. His once-respected opposition TV station, NTV, was “bought” by Gazprom, and Gazprom, needing a western-friendly face for its hostile takeover, hired Boris Jordan as the new general director of the network—and his old partner-in-crime, Alfred Kokh, the disgraced ex-privatization chief, as chairman of NTV’s board. Almost immediately, 25 NTV journalists— half the staff— “resigned”. Jordan’s job was to blunt western criticism of the Kremlin as it destroyed the lone critical voice on Russian television, and two years later, his job done, he moved on.

Today Jordan still runs the Sputnik Fund, such as it is—mostly a web site as far as I can tell. And he is listed as the founder of New York University’s “NYU Jordan Center for the Advance Study of Russia”. He looks like such a minor figure now.

Without any of this context, it’s as though Russia’s extremes of inequality that Credit Suisse just reported on suddenly appeared out of nowhere, as a manifestation of Vladimir Putin’s innate evil. As though nothing preceded him—the 1990s had never happened, and our Establishment has always sincerely cared about how Russians must suffer from inequality and corruption. Erasing history like this has a funny way of making America look exceptionally good, and Russia look exceptionally bad.

Mark Ames is co-host of the Radio War Nerd podcast with Gary Brecher (aka John Dolan). Subscribe here.

Posted: April 26th, 2017

Yesterday I wrote about Nikolai Alekseyev, the very strange and very anti-Semitic Russian gay rights activist who, according to Novaya Gazeta, “provoked” Chechnya’s recent brutal crackdown on gays.

Now he’s suing.

(more…)

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Posted: April 24th, 2017

The current hysteria about Russia ain’t going away, that much is clear. There’s an enormous amount of propaganda, paranoia, fear, and comic lunacy about most of the reporting we’re getting out here. There’re also a lot of locally-generated horror stories coming out of Russia that we’re not receiving here. (more…)

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Posted: April 23rd, 2017