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Posted: August 12th, 2019

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Posted: August 12th, 2019

Mark Ames is the co-host of the Radio War Nerd podcast. Subscribe to Radio War Nerd on Patreon.

Who remembers @ShamiWitness? At the peak of ISIS’s power, @ShamiWitness stood out as the genocidal militia group’s “most influential Twitter account” according to a Channel 4 exposé and a Kings College report. The @ShamiWitness account was followed by some two-thirds of foreign jihadis. But it went further than propogandizing Islamic State’s massacres and rapes: @Shamiwitness also actively recruited foreign jihadis and helped lead them through the ratlines in Turkey, into the ISIS killing fields in Syria and Iraq, as a George Washington University report revealed this year.

But I want to talk about the western “experts” in Washington and London who cozied up to @ShamiWitness — especially since all of them are still around, many of them bigger and more influential in our political discourse than ever. They’re the ones who built up @ShamiWitness’s social media capital, making his account so popular, and so effective, in recruiting ISIS murderers. Some of the best known Syria regime-change hustlers and “experts”—Eliot Higgins of Bellingcat and the Saudi-funded Atlantic Council; Charles Lister of the Saudi-funded Middle East Institute, former CNN “Syria expert” and Atlantic Council fellow Michael Weiss, all major figures promoting today’s RussiaGate hysteria—together helped transform the @ShamiWitness account from a cretinous troll into a credible “ISIS expert”. They validated and lent credibility to ShamiWitness as someone with deep, local insider knowledge, boosting ShamiWitness’s social capital their countless retweets, #FF’s, #Pt’s, and their numerous public interactions.

As it turned out, @ShamiWitness was a fake “Syria expert”. The millennial yuppie who ran the ShamiWitness account was as much an insider expert on ISIS as the western Syria hacks who boosted him. It wasn’t the “experts” like Bellingcat who unmasked ShamiWitness — quite the opposite, Bellingcat’s team played a major role in building him up as a credible expert. Rather, it was a Channel 4 report exposing ShamiWitness as a fake — but a very dark and dangerous fake, with very real world consequences. @ShamiWitness was run by a 24-year-old Indian marketing executive named Mehdi Masroor Biswas, who tweeted out ISIS and Syria “expertise” from his bachelor pad in Bangalore, India. 

And just like that, the London and Washington Syria regime-change neocons who’d been boosting @ShamiWitness suddenly looked like fools — as well as ISIS accessories. Contrary to what they had all assumed, @ShamiWitness wasn’t the expert Syria insider he pretended to be. He spoke no Arabic; he was nowhere near Syria.

The ShamiWitness account was every bit as sick, sectarian and vile as you’d expect from ISIS’s leading Twitter account. In its brief gory heyday, ISIS was responsible for slaughtering somewhere between 50,000 – 100,000 people in Iraq and Syria, enslaving, raping and exterminating untold thousands of Yezidis and other minorities in the region. Which makes it all the more shocking how these western experts, most of whose careers are still thriving today, bigger than ever in fact, were able to get away with being accessories to ISIS propaganda and recruiting efforts. It wasn’t as though they couldn’t have known ShamiWitness was a monster. A year before ShamiWitness was unmasked, Michael Kelley called out reporters (including himself) for being accessories to ShamiWitness’s social media influence, but he was practically alone in that.

Here are a few gruesome examples of ShamiWitness’s Twitter account in action:

  • In 2014, responding to reports out of Kobane that ISIS attackers were raping and mutilating female Kurdish soldiers, ShamiWitness gleefully tweeted:

  • As his Islamic State heroes were posting selfies of their Kurdish female trophies [WARNING GRAPHIC]:

  •  …ShamiWitness tweeted out sick ISIS jokes about murdered Kurds like this:

ShamiWitness swooned over ISIS’s murder porn, relentlessly promoting and tweeting out ISIS execution and beheading videos on Twitter. ShamiWitness repeatedly tweeted out ISIS videos of American hostage Peter Kassig’s beheading execution within minutes after they were first posted, feeding bloodlust to his thousands of foreign jihadi followers.

And he did his best to inflame sectarian hatreds, gearing up ISIS foreign recruits for the killing fields:

Despite thousands of vile tweets like that, ShamiWitness was a popular figure among the Syria regime-change “expert” crowd. One of those experts who’s been in the news a lot lately is Eliot Higgins of the Atlantic Council/Bellingcat cyber-sleuth group. Bellingcat have made themselves darlings of the western press — and western intelligence agencies — with their investigative reports targeting NATO’s adversaries, primarily Russia and Syria. After making headlines for tying Russia to the downing of Malaysian Air Flight 17, and unmasking the alleged GRU poisoners in Salisbury, Higgins and his crew have received unanimous glowing press in the BBC, New York Times, Washington Post and elsewhere — along with funding from the Saudi-financed Atlantic Council, and the US government’s National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a regime-change front set up by Reagan’s ghoulish CIA chief, Bill Casey. (The NED’s first chief, Allen Weinstein admitted to the Washington Post, “A lot of what we do today was done covertly twenty-five years ago by the CIA.”)

Here is Higgins throwing out a big #FF — or “FollowFriday” — recommending the ISIS propagandist to his followers:

  • And again (For the mercifully uninitiated, “#FF” is how you recommend other accounts to your own followers to follow. #FF is a key part of any brand-building strategy. You #FF someone who you think will make you look good, and who you hope will #FF you back to their followers. This is how ambitious Twitter propagandists build brand following):

  • Here’s the Bellingcat founder promoting some ISIS slaughter porn tweeted out by ShamiWitness—in this case, an ISIS video gloating over murdered Kurdish women:

  • Here is the Bellingcat sleuth engaging in what passes for witty Twitter repartee with ShamiWitness, joking about devastating ISIS suicide bomber vehicles that have killed and mutilated untold thousands in Syria and Iraq. But for Bellingcat and ShamiWitness, there’s a Gallagher joke in it: 

  • And here’s Higgins offering helpful Twitter tips to ISIS’s top recruiter on how to deal with ISIS’s online critics:

Higgins began his “open source intelligence” career under a misleading avatar — “BrownMoses” — as if Higgins, a doughy pinkish Midlands gamer, was some kind of swarthy Middle Easterner whose friends’ and relatives’ lives were at stake. Oddly reminiscent of a Mehdi Masroor Biswas pretending to be a ShamiWitness (Shami meaning “Syria”). How could ace sleuths Bellingcat not know that ShamiWitness was a fraud, let alone a propagandist for mass murder and enslavement? As online open source experts, they should’ve had no problem unmasking ShamiWitness. Slate reported how it was “fairly easy to doxx” ShamiWitness after all, based on his giant dumb social media footprints under his real name and real life in Bangalore, accounts which were carelessly linked to his ShamiWitness accounts.

Nevertheless, Higgins and his Bellingcat boys were gobsmacked when the ISIS “expert” they’d been #FFing and conversing with for two years turned out to be a fake. And when ShamiWitness was unmasked, rather than owning up to it and trying to understand how he’d been duped, Higgins tried to turn it all into a fatuous joke, in a strangely transparent attempt to minimize the whole scandal and make it go away: 

Higgins’ efforts to downplay ShamiWitness were deliberately misleading as well as childish. He was trying to cover his own ass over having been duped by a Bangalore dweeb with blood on his hands. We now know from detailed terrorism studies that ShamiWitness was not on “toilet cleaning duty” as Higgins quipped—he very literally led foreign jihadi recruits into the Syrian and Iraqi killing fields, and inspired one of ISIS’s most gruesome foreign terrorist attacks, in Dhaka.

You had to try really hard not to know what you were getting involved in with ShamiWitness, and in case you were trying too hard, ShamiWitness boasted what he was up to, such as this tweet to another chummy Washington regime-change operative and former Vice guy, Danny Gold:

Mere boasts about ISIS terrorism did not cause Gold any hesitation in brand-building with ShamiWitness: 

For now, let’s move on to more familiar names in the DC-London regime-change swamp.

  • Here is ubiquitous regime-change hack Charles Lister, of the Saudi-financed Middle East Institute, logrolling with Higgins and ShamiWitness like something out of a “how to build your social media brand” workshop:

  • Here’s a string of Lister-ShamiWitness-Bellingcat logrolling episodes:

See, this is how you cross-build a community of “experts” on social media: tagging and referencing your circle enough times to create an impression of something happening, a self-validated “community of Syria experts.” All of them benefited from it, including ShamiWitness. Only the Syrian and Iraqi people suffered.

But “Jihad Lister” (as Special Forces vet Jack Murphy calls him) went further than logrolling with ShamiWitness, blowing kisses to the ISIS propagandist/recruiter in ways that are downright sickening:

Here, for example, is Lister yukking it up with ShamiWitness over a particularly brutal Saudi-led militia group, Suqur al-Izz, an ally of both ISIS and Al Qaeda’s al-Nusra — and which carried out savage massacres of hundreds of minority Alawite civilians in Latakia province (documented in a Human Rights Watch report). To Lister and his ISIS friend, it’s all good for an ironic laugh:

To which ShamiWitness reminded Lister:

…prompting a “right back atcha” from his chum Lister:

Naturally, this sordid ISIS-neocon Twitter orgy features serial Thesaurus-abuser Michael Weiss, the Daily Beast’s tenured regime-change hack. There’s a lot of love going back and forth between the two. Perhaps most astonishing is ShamiWitness declaring Michael Weiss as his favorite journalist, Weiss going wobbly at the knees in gratitude, and the ISIS recruiter blowing him a smiley:

  • Weiss blows a smiley back at the ISIS recruiter:

Incredible as it may seem, around the time of this ShamiWitness love-fest, this same group—Weiss, Zelin, and Bellingcat—soon ganged up on another and far better Syria analyst, Aymenn Al Tamimi, accusing him of—are you ready?—being too friendly on Twitter with ISIS. The think-tank neocons accused Tamimi of having turned into a terrorist. In fact, Tamimi’s real sin was debunking an inane Michael Weiss conspiracy article that claimed Iran and ISIS were “secret allies” in Syria.

Weiss was of course wrong—being consistently wrong is what Weiss is paid to do for a living.

This is the same Michael Weiss who posted a similar conspiracy theory claiming Russia secretly served as ISIS’s air force in Syria. Weiss gets things wrongs as a rule, because being wrong is his career. It’s a job not many people are willing to do, or capable of doing without triggering a gag reflex. Michael Weiss gargles made-to-order shit without so much as a chaser. He is, quite literally, a tenured failure. There’s a lot of dark demand for this kind of work, and very few willing takers. You need to believe you’re some kind of evil genius, pulling a fast one on all the honest rubes, to get off on this kind of work.

Weiss also struck up all sorts of sleazy relationships with Syrian jihadis, and even posed for selfies in a jihadi-controlled section of Aleppo in 2012:

As Max Blumenthal reported, the jihadi on Weiss’s left was believed to be Syrian rebel commander Yousef Ajjan Al-Hadid, who was killed shortly after Weiss’s selfie. And the other guy with the AK, the one who looks like Harold Ramis, is Mahmoud Sheikh al-Zour, who ran his own rebel training camp in northern Syria, and worked in Al Qaeda-dominated Idlib as well as Aleppo.

So you’d think Weiss and his crew would be a little more circumspect about accusing a far more serious Syria analyst like Tamimi of being a jihadist sympathizer—but hypocrisy never bothered a neocon. And anyway, their gang hit on Tamimi’s reputation had nothing to do with jihadi sympathies, and everything to do with making Weiss look bad.  So the syndicate took a break from brand-building with ShamiWitness, to try to sink Tamimi’s career by smearing him as a terrorist symp. The job was handed to an aspiring young neocon larva named Armin Rosen — previously known for defending a racist hate-group leader’s use of “Islamo-fascism” — who published the hit piece in Business Insider, headlined “The Remarkable Story of a Rising Terrorism Analyst Who Got Too Close To His Subjects”.

Rosen’s article begins with the goal reported as fact:

Aymenn Al Tamimi’s career came apart in public last week.

A couple paragraphs down, the article explains how:

almost from the beginning, his links to known jihadis — including members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), arguably the most ruthless of such groups — and a habit of firing off tweets and social media posts appearing to sympathize with their cause raised eyebrows among his colleagues in the tightly knit, scholarly community of Western-based terrorism analysts.

Next paragraph comes the bombshell evidence, in the form of a non sequitur:

On July 14, Al Tamimi, who had been cited in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post and had appeared on BBC News, published an article attempting to debunk journalist Michael Weiss’s evidence that Iran was aiding ISIS, which now controls a roughly Belgium-sized slice of Iraq and Syria.

This is where the “tightly knit” syndicate comes in—it’s not about evidence or expository logic; the evidence is what the self-appointed “community” decides is evidence. In this instance, it was Bellingcat that pulled the pulled open the trap door:

[Tamimi’s] article was cross-posted to Bellingcat, the online publication launched by Eliot Higgins, the renowned investigative journalist most famous for helping to prove the Syrian regime’s responsibility for the August 21, 2013, chemical weapons attack in Damascus.

But within days the article had been pulled from Bellingcat and Tamimi had been dropped as a contributor to the site, a development Higgins confirmed for Business Insider by email early last week.

Higgins cited serious accusations that had surfaced on Twitter after fellow terrorism analysts had aired evidence suggesting that Tamimi was discomfortingly close with some of his sources in the jihadist world.

Weiss linked to a conversation in which Tamimi told an apparent ISIS supporter that it was “best not openly tweeting” pro-Caliphate sympathies, and that his “bro,” the pro-ISIS Twitter user Shami Witness, “suggested I should stick to objectivity on Twitter.”

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, called the exchange “pretty disturbing.”

That would be this Daveed Gartenstein-Ross:

This is a classic neocon smear strategy—activate the network to create the impression that the character smear is a consensus opinion by experts from different backgrounds, and drive the stake in the heart with a retraction. In this case, Bellingcat’s Eliot Higgins played executioner in the Tamimi smear. Higgins and his Bellingcat crew have come a long way since this smear on Tamimi. These days, Bellingcat are media celebrities, fronting for western intelligence agencies’ information wars against Russia and Syria. Eliot Higgins and Bellingcat have positioned themselves as a “pro-NATO Wikileaks” exposing the lies and crimes of NATO’s adversaries, racking up lucrative grants from Google, the Atlantic Council, and Bill Casey’s old regime-change front, the National Endowment for Democracy, along the way.

To Tamimi’s credit, he was one of the very few Syria analysts or journalists who publicly owned up to his own role in lending credibility to ShamiWitness’s Twitter account. Unlike Weiss, Zelin, Lister, Higgins or any of the other Bellingcats, who never owned up to their own role as accessories to ShamiWitness, Tamimi had the integrity to write about and explore his own mistakes, and to try to learn from those mistakes. And despite Bellingcat’s best efforts, Tamimi is still around, blogging at Syria Comment—a site edited by one of the very few American Syria experts to actually get the Syria war right—Professor Joshua Landis, who heads the Center for Middle East Studies at U. Oklahoma, and who appeared on Radio War Nerd early this year.

Being right about Syria is, as I’ve said, the only sin in this business. So you might not be surprised to learn that Michael Weiss and ShamiWitness teamed up against Landis. Actually it’s worse: Weiss and ShamiWitness ganged up on Landis by making menacing attacks on Landis’s Syrian-born wife and her family, who are members of Syria’s minority Alawite sect, which has been targeted for extermination by groups supported by ShamiWitness, Weiss and the rest of this DC-London regime-change crowd.

Here is the ShamiWeiss-Landis exchange, in which Weiss tags his ISIS pal to attack Professor Landis’s inlaws, many of whom still live in Syria:

After Weiss tagged in ISIS’s top propagandist to attack Landis’s Alawite wife and in-laws, he reached for his trusty Thesaurus to deliver what passes for a witty coup de grace, in what passes for the pen of Michael Weiss: 

We’ve spent enough time on these sleazy goons. Let’s name some more western “experts” who boosted and promoted the @ShamiWitness account:

  • Phillip Smyth of AIPAC spinoff the Washington Institute for Near East Studies:

  • Faysal Itani, Senior Fellow at the Saudi-funded Atlantic Council:

  • Borzou Daraghi of the Atlantic Council (another pattern) and formerly Buzzfeed:

  • Liz Sly of the Washington Post:

But how could they have known? some might ask. Indeed, how—not like our Syria experts could be bothered to read the tweets of those accounts they’ve helped promote or anything:

 

In fact, they all knew, but only a very few cared to call it out, and got nothing for it. A year before ShamiWitness was unmasked by Channel 4, Michael Kelley of Business Insider (now editor at Yahoo News) published a piece, “One Of The Most Popular Sources on Syria Happens To Be An Extremist Supporter” calling out reporters and experts like himself for being accessories to ShamiWitness/ISIS propaganda:

“[H]e remains a noticeable voice in the Syria discussion. That is uncomfortable for analysts and reporters (including this author) who have directly or indirectly facilitated Shami’s rise, even if the lift merely involved a citation, a retweet, or friendly banter.”

After ShamiWitness was exposed in December 2014, Syria journalists and experts who hadn’t been part of the ShamiWitness Dupe Brigade called out the hacks who’d made ShamiWitness a powerful and influential propagandist.

For example, Zaid Benjamin of Radio Sawa bitterly tweeted:

In the months and years since ShamiWitness’s account was unmasked and the young man behind it arrested, we’ve learned that ShamiWitness was more than just ISIS’s most influential propagandist on Twitter.

Two of the ISIS Bangladeshi jihadis who carried out the gruesome 2016 Dhaka attack were avid followers of Shamiwitness. That attack left 29 dead —including 9 Italians, 5 women and 4 men, all of whose bodies showed signs of gruesome torture, punishment for anyone who couldn’t cite verses from the Koran.

Indian authorities also discovered that ShamiWitness helped recruit Areef Majid and his group of ISIS jihadist recruits from Kalyan, near Mumbai. Majid fought for ISIS in Iraq and Syria, before escaping in late 2014—like a lot of foreign recruits who started getting cold feet after the US-led coalition and Kurdish fighters made life harder for the Islamic State’s army of sadists and genocidaires.

And this year, a report by the George Washington University Program on Extremism, titled “The Travelers. American Jihadists in Syria and Iraq” revealed just how intimately involved ShamiWitness was in ISIS recruiting and logistics, guiding foreign jihadis to the ISIS rape camps and killing fields in Syria and Iraq.

The report goes deep into the experience of an American ISIS recruit, “Mo,” who was “one of the first Americans to go to Syria [to fight for ISIS].” In June 2014, the FBI paid a visit to “Mo” after monitoring his online interactions with the likes of ShamiWitness. Shortly afterwards, Mo bought a one-way ticket to Istanbul, and made his way to a Turkish town called Urfa (or “Şanlıurfa” in Turkish). From accounts like ShamiWitness “Mo” understood that to join ISIS, Urfa “was the place to go.”

Here, the George Washington U report describes how Shamiwitness led “Mo” to his ISIS handlers:

“While analysis of @Shamiwitness’ activities to date paint him merely as a propaganda disseminator for IS, it seems that his role may have in fact also been one of direct facilitation for would-be Western travelers. While in Şanlıurfa, Mo used Twitter to reach out to @Shamiwitness, who put him in touch with three local IS facilitators, including a British IS member called Abu Rahman al-Britani. Using Kik, the encrypted messenger of choice for IS travelers at the time, he reached out to al-Britani. Mo was then given a number for an IS smuggler and told by al-Britani that he could use him for tazkiya, a vetting process whereby a known fighter vouches for a new member to other IS members.”

So people in Syria and Iraq were killed, kidnapped, tortured and raped. And ShamiWitness is rotting in an Indian prison somewhere. That’s not their problem. Eliot Higgins and Michael Weiss have moved on to bigger things now. Their power network is a lot bigger too. And they can prove beyond a doubt that if you question their research, you might be working for the enemy. Why else would anyone question their expertise?

Mark Ames is the co-host of the Radio War Nerd podcast. Subscribe to Radio War Nerd on Patreon.

 

Posted: October 27th, 2018

Radio War Nerd subscribers suggested reposting this newsletter on Yemen open to the public. Subscribe to Radio War Nerd on patreon!

We’re living through a massive artificial famine, right now. In NW Yemen, home of the Yemeni Shia who’ve fought off a Saudi-financed invasion, the “coalition” of invaders has settled on a slower, more effective strategy: artificial famine and blockade. This is how you kill off a troublesome population, not with bombs and guns alone. Hunger and disease are much better mass killers than firearms and bombs.

NW Yemen has been blockaded for years now. And the Saudi strategy is working well. Yemen has had up to amillion cases of cholera, an illness unheard of in countries with modern antibiotics. Untreated cholera is fatal in about half of all cases (versus 1% when normal treatment is available). Since medical supplies are being blockaded (with the help of the US Navy), and few journalists have made much effort to find out what has been going on in the blockaded areas, we may be dealing with an unreported death toll of half a million people, most of them children.

Yemen is a perfect target for artificial famine and blockade, because it never had enough farmland to feed its people. Before the Saudi invasion, Yemen imported almost 90% of its food supplies. When the Saudis imposed their blockade, cutting off all food imports to Hodeidah, the one Red-Sea port serving NW Yemen, those imports stopped. There has never been any alternative route for food supplies to Yemen. Even before the war, road traffic between Saudi and Yemenwas all but shut down. (Which is why, in a year spent a few miles from the Yemen border, I went up to the border many times, looked over it, but never gave a thought to crossing it. It would never have been allowed.)

So NW Yemen is closed off very nicely, from the Saudi view. Which is also the view of the US, UK, UAE, Israel, Kuwait, and the oil companies — basically, anyone who matters in this world. Shia Yemenis are dying at a very satisfactory rate, children first (because children are always the first to die in long sieges like this).

The next step for the Saudi-led “coalition” will be taking Hodeidah, the Shia provinces’ one source of food and medical aid. That operation is well underway as I write.

Last I’ve heard, Sunni forces are only a few km from Hodeidah town, and the Shia may choose to evacuate, withdraw inland to the mountains where they can fight more effectively against the expensive air power and armor of the invaders.

The coalition attackers have taken a sensible approach to conquering Hodeidah, coming from the south along the coastal plain, where air and armor are at their most effective. There’s talk that this strategy was pushed by the UAE, which has bought some highly-placed foreign officers (including a US Lt. Col. who somehow insists he’s not “in” the UAE military, though he wears the uniform and draws God-knows-what insane salary from it) — and plenty of mercenaries, from places as far afield as Sudan (plenty of unemployed ex-Janjaweed throat-slitters looking for work these days) and Colombia, where there’s also a surplus of experienced killers.

The Saudis, who’ve been a disaster militarily from the start of this war, stalled out along the mountainous northern border and are now just trying to stop Shia technicals from overrunning any more Saudi towns along the border. So this advance toward Hodeidah from the south not only means the death of many inland civilians, it also shows the fracture-lines within the Saudi/UAE alliance running the invasion, suggesting that down the line a few months, even more Yemeniswill die as factions backed by the UAE fight others sponsored by Riyadh over who controls the conquered territory (think Saruman’s vs Sauron’s Orcs).

When the Shia fighters pull out — or even if they stay and make a last stand in the rubble of Hodeidah — the blockade will be airtight. From then on, it’s just a matter of waiting for the blockaded population to die off in such numbers that they lose the will to fight.

It happens pretty quickly. You, a Shia fighter, might be willing to die fighting the invaders, but you’re less likely to be willing to watch your children die. You’ll give up eventually, and the “invaders” who failed on the battlefield but won by blockade will roll triumphantly into your towns as if they were brave warriors.

It’s happened before. It’s how the Nigerian Army crushed the Igbo in Biafra in the 1960s. The Biafrans won on the battlefield, but the Nigerian Army was as well-connected, world-wide, as it was cowardly and corrupt. So it laid out big money to its foreign friends and got a very cooperative silence while it starved Biafra to death. That huge international silence had a lot to do with oil and money, just as this one does. When oil, money, and a huge international alliance all line up with the people starving out a troublesome minority, you can expect a complete media blackout on news about those who are dying.

And you’re living through one of those guilty silences right now. Very few journalists have shown any interest in reporting the suffering imposed by the blockade. One of the few to try is RWN guest Bethan McKernan, who just published the only story I can find in English about how losing Hodeidah will cause massive death among the Shia.

All the other media reports I’ve found on Hodeidah are so wildly pro-Saudi they read like parody. Here’s one example from the Saudi mouthpiece Arab News:

“…the failure of negotiations compels [the Saudi-led coalition] to enforce this military solution that will cut off resources from the Houthis once and for all, ultimately shifting the balance of the war and ending the suffering. It is not just a military objective, but a moral imperative.” 

Did you catch that? Tightening the blockade by capturing Hodeidah is a “moral imperative.” And that was the English-language version, the soft sell aimed at foreigners. (Arab News is aimed at Anglo expats with money living in KSA, and routinely soft-pedals stories to push the “reformist” image of MbS and the other bin Salmans, one of whom is the boss of Arab News’s parent company.)

Other media in the Sunni world had a more openly bloodthirsty, gung-ho tilt. After all, it was only a decade ago that Bandar, one of the most powerful Saud princes, warned that the Shia had provoked the Ummah’s Sunni majority to the limit, and would soon meet their doom:

“Prince Bandar bin Sultan, once the powerful Saudi ambassador in Washington and head of Saudi intelligence…had a revealing and ominous conversation with the head of the British Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove. Prince Bandar told him: ‘The time is not far off in the Middle East, Richard, when it will be literally “God help the Shia”. More than a billion Sunnis have simply had enough of them.’”

Another Saudi mouthpiece journal, Asharq Awsat, published in London but funded from Riyadh (and run by yet another bin Salman brother) gloated much more openly:

“The Saudi-led coalition and the legitimate forces will be able to tighten the siege on the coup militias and close the last important port it controls after the liberation of Hodeidah governorate and its strategic harbor.”

Asharq Awsat apparently didn’t get the PR memo that the conquest of Hodeidah should be spun as a way to open up humanitarian aid. No, they’re saying the inconvenient truth of the operation, that its goal is to “tighten the siege…and close the last important port…” supplying the Shia provinces of the interior.

So the situation is lining up very nicely, militarily, for the UAE, Saudi, and their friends in D.C. and London. All you need to tighten the noose at this point in a campaign of extermination by famine/blockade is the silent collusion of world media.

And Lord, how happy the Anglo media have been to supply that last necessary element! Compare this silence to alleged starvation stories from Sunni regions of Syria.

If there was even a rumor that Sunni Syrians might be going hungry, every mainstream media outlet was all over the story. If their CIA-funded shills from the White Helmets made ridiculous claims of massacres and giant famines, later disproved, you could count on everyone from BBC to CNN to blast them over every TV in the Anglosphere.

But the hundreds of thousands of verified, real famine and epidemic cases in Yemen get very little coverage. There’s nothing subtle about why not. The Syrian Sunni jihadis were de facto allies of the US/UK/Saudi/Israel/UAE bloc. So their suffering needed to be amplified. The Shia Yemenis can be slandered with one word: “Iran.” Anything touched by Iran, for Anglo media, is inherently evil, and anything done to those so tainted needs no further justification. The “Houthi,” i.e. the Shia of NW Yemen, are allegedly puppets or proxies for Iran, the Shia Mister Big of journalistic imagination, and therefore legitimate targets for even the nastiest war of extermination (such as by hunger and disease.)

Just by the bye, the Iranian connection is mostly nonsense. The Shia of NW Yemen have been fighting against Sunni imperialists since the Ottomans tried to take their mountain villages centuries ago. They had no Iranian help then, and get very little now. The Sunni forces sent against them have always been the true foreign interlopers, featuring everything from Albanians to Egyptian contingents. But that kind of influence is just a normal fact about the world, to Anglosphere reporters, whereas even the faintest hint of Iranian aid is as horrifying as those globs of Alien goo on the landing craft of Ripley’s Nostromo.

The truth is that the mountain Shia of NW Yemen are eminently killable precisely because they DON’T have influential friends abroad. An inland population, very poor, isolated, facing a very rich and well-connected genocidal enemy — that’s the situation here, and it’s perfect for a successful extermination campaign.

As we see every day, via the non-coverage of this huge story by everyone (except the Cockburns, Bethan, and a few other brave outliers). There’ll be a time when the artificial famine in Yemen takes its place with other, similar horrors, like that in Ireland in the 1840s, Ukraine in the 1930s, and Bengal in the 1940s. And when revisionist scholars get around to counting the dead in this latest atrocity, they’ll note that there was a deadly silence from media outlets that should have known better—and DID know better, truth be told.

When Alfred Lord Tennyson, the adored Poet Laureate of Britain, was invited on a tour of Ireland at the very worst moment of the artificial famine there, he laid down strict conditions: he was to be provided with a coach with window shades that could be pulled down so as to shut out any view of “Irish distress” on the roads he traveled, and his hosts at every manor house were to instruct other guests to refrain from any mention whatsoever of this “distress”.

It’s what you see with most such famines. The loathing for the targeted minority long precedes their extermination. Once that loathing has been vented without blowback from world media, the genocidaires grow bolder, and begin to think practicalities. How and when, not “whether” to take out the troublemakers.

They don’t need, or even want, too much backing from media. All they ask is silence, distraction, anything other than the genocide itself. And they have the money and moral influence to enforce it (yes, weird as it sounds, money and power do strike most people as possessing moral force in their own right). With those advantages, and a liberal dispensing of cash to publishers, think tanks, and lobbyists, a lethal silence descends on those who are dying.

This is the last, most important element of the Ireland/Biafra/Bengal/Yemen strategy: a collusive silence from the media. Sure, it’ll be noted decades later. Books and articles will be devoted to explaining or justifying it (mostly “justifying” because powerful states tend to stay powerful, and don’t want their grandfathers’ crimes exposed).

And there’ll be a whole new set of career opportunities, for the grandkids of the journalists who are blocking the Yemen horror from their consciousness right now, in publishing scholarly articles on the complex quandaries that stopped their ancestors from seeing or smelling the corpses — when really (as I discovered when I once tried to research literary reactions to the Irish Famine) it was simple swinishness, generation after generation.

This article originally appeared as Radio War Nerd Newsletter #71, for subscribers to Radio War Nerd on Patreon. Subscribe today!

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Posted: June 10th, 2018

First published on SurveillanceValley.com

The Tor Project, a private non-profit that underpins the dark web and enjoys cult status among privacy activists, is almost 100% funded by the US government.

In the process of writing my book Surveillance Valley, I was able to obtain via FOIA roughly 2,500 pages of correspondence — including strategy sessions and contracts and budgets and status updates — between the Tor Project and its main funder, a CIA spinoff now known as the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), an agency that oversees America’s foreign broadcasting operations like Radio Free Asia and Radio Free Europe.

(See the full set of documents here.)

I obtained the documents in 2015. By then I had already spent a couple of years doing extensive reporting on Tor’s deeply conflicted ties to the regime change wing of the U.S. government. By following the money, I discovered that Tor was not grassroots. I was able to show that despite its radical anti-government cred, Tor was almost 100% funded by three U.S. national security agencies: the Navy, the State Department and the BBG. Tor was military contractor with its own government contractor number — a privatized extension of the very same government that it claimed to be fighting.

This was a shocking revelation.

For years, the Tor Project — along with other government-funded crypto tools like Signal — has been seen in almost religious terms by the privacy community as the only way to protect people from government spying online.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation held up Tor as the digital equivalent of the First Amendment. The ACLU backed it. Fight for the Future, the hip Silicon Valley activist group, declared Tor to be “NSA-proof.” Edward Snowden held it up as an example of the kind of grassroots privacy technology that could defeat government surveillance online, and told his followers to use it. Prominent award-winning journalists from Wired, Vice, The Intercept, The Guardian and Rolling Stone — including Laura Poitras, Glenn Greenwald and Andy Greenberg — all helped pump up Tor’s mythical anti-state rebel status. Even Daniel Ellsberg, the legendary whistleblower, was convinced that Tor was vital to the future of democracy. Anyone who questioned this narrative and pointed to Tor’s lavish government support was attacked, ridiculed, smeared and hounded into silence. I know because that’s what Tor supporters tried to do to me.

But the facts wouldn’t go away.

The initial evidence that I had gathered in my reporting left little room for doubt about Tor’s true nature as foreign policy weapon of the U.S. government. But the box of FOIA documents I received from the BBG took that evidence to a whole new level.

Why would the U.S. government fund a tool that limited its own power? The answer, as I discovered, was that Tor didn’t threaten American power. It enhanced it.

The FOIA documents showed collaboration between the federal government, the Tor Project and key members of the privacy and Internet Freedom movement on a level that was hard to believe:

The documents showed Tor employees taking orders from their handlers in the federal government, including hatching plans to deploy their anonymity tool in countries that the U.S. was working to destabilize: China, Iran, Vietnam, Russia. They showed discussions about the need to influence news coverage and to control bad press. They featured monthly updates that described meetings and trainings with the CIA, NSA, FBI, DOJ and State Department. They also revealed plans to funnel government funds to run “independent” Tor nodes. Most shockingly, the FOIA documents put under question Tor’s pledge that it would never put in any backdoors into their software. (See below.)

The documents conclusively showed that Tor is not independent at all. The organization did not have free reign to do whatever it wanted, but was kept on a short leash and bound by contracts with strict contractual obligations. It was also required to file detailed monthly status reports, giving the government a clear picture of what Tor employees were developing, where they went and who they saw.

I used many of these documents in my book, Surveillance Valley, to tell the story of how privacy technology evolved into a tool of military and corporate power. But now I’m going further: I’m releasing the full cache of FOIA files on Tor and the BBG to the public. I hope that journalists and historians will make use of this information to explore the close relationship between privacy technology, government power and Silicon Valley economic dominance.

In honor of this release, I’m putting together a little fact-checking primer on Tor’s government ties that’s based on these documents. I’ll be releasing a “fact-check” every few days, starting with the first:

CLAIM #1: Tor does not provide backdoors to the U.S. government
RATING: Moderately true.

 

Buy it today!

And check Yasha Levine’s Surveillance Valley blog for updates.

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Posted: March 7th, 2018

In Surveillance Valley, Yasha Levine traces the history of the internet back to its beginnings as a Vietnam-era tool for spying on guerrilla fighters and antiwar protesters–a military computer networking project that ultimately envisioned the creation of a global system of surveillance and prediction. Levine shows how the same military objectives that drove the development of early internet technology are still at the heart of Silicon Valley today. Spies, counterinsurgency campaigns, hippie entrepreneurs, privacy apps funded by the CIA. From the 1960s to the 2010s — this revelatory and sweeping story will make you reconsider what you know about the most powerful, ubiquitous tool ever created.

Buy it today!

And check Yasha Levine’s Surveillance Valley blog for updates.

 

Posted: March 5th, 2018

I finally read Kathy Lally’s rambling screed. How do you respond to something so blatantly dishonest? A number of media contacts have told me that Lally shopped this hit piece around to multiple publications, but it was rejected for this very reason. According to JPMorgan whistleblower Alayne Fleischmann, the Huffington Post is one such publication that rejected the piece, but I have been told that there were more. It waits to be seen why Jeff Bezos’ Washington Post ran such a deliberately deceptive smear piece.

For one thing, Lally claims that The eXile’s satire “terrorized women correspondents in Moscow” — without mentioning a single male “victim” of our vicious satire and pranks, even though most of The eXile’s “victims” or targets were male (as were most foreign correspondents in Moscow at that time). Compared to what The eXile did to male western hacks, Lally got off light. Just ask the New York Times’ Michael Wines, who got a horse sperm pie tossed in his face after The eXile awarded him the worst Moscow hack for his series of articles whitewashing Vladimir Putin and his KGB past. Mention the fact that most of The eXile’s targets were male, and Lally’s grossly opportunistic thesis falls apart. No wonder she omitted it.

Lally was never a major concern of ours, apart from her effort to get us censored (and worse). Before Lally tried to get the entire eXile publication censored from the all-important and influential Johnsons Russia List email list, described in a 1997 New York Times article as the one centralized space where “Russia Watchers Watch Each Other”, she barely registered on our radar, and hadn’t appeared in our publication. The eXile published a lot of deliberately offensive satire, and a lot of embarrassing stupid and juvenile satire. It also published a lot of brilliant satire, investigative journalism, and criticism. We were trying to create a genuinely transgressive left that spared no one and nothing, and we deliberately took it too far, sometimes with great results, sometimes not. But the idea that, just a few years after the fall of the Soviet Union, an American journalist — a veritable missionary for democracy, as every American in Moscow pretended to be in the 1990s — would post an open letter in the JRL asking for the moderator to censor everything from an American publication, even the non-satirical/non-offensive criticism and investigative journalism about Russia, simply because other eXile material not posted in the JRL offended Lally, was outrageously hypocritical and unprincipled. No American journalist should want to censor journalism in a place like Russia, with its history.

The moderator of the Russia list held an open poll/discussion about running Taibbi’s press review columns, and nearly all of Lally’s media colleagues openly opposed her position—both female and male. One of the most persuasive voices defending The eXile from censorship came from Masha Gessen. That’s despite the fact that our paper had savagely mocked and heckled Gessen, the sort of mockery that Kathy Lally now claims puts her on par with #MeToo victims of rape and sexual assault. Ever since then, I’ve always admired Gessen for her principled positions and her willingness to stick her neck out, even though I often disagree with her.

In the end, after dozens of reporters, academics, ex-diplomats and other Russia watchers weighed in, Lally’s attempts to have us censored failed.

Like I said, I hadn’t heard of Lally before she tried to have us censored. Her reporting differed little from the rest of the foreign hack herd — mostly a smug clique of pampered cheerleaders for Yeltsin’s corrupt “young reformers” and whatever toxic neoliberal medicine the Clinton Administration force-fed Russia.

At the time, our satirical fire was trained on the biggest and most insidious Yeltsin-apologist hacks—Fred Hiatt of the Washington Post (who failed up to the WaPo’s editorial page, where he famously published 27 WaPo editorials promoting Bush’s invasion of Iraq and the deaths of a million Iraqis), Michael Gordon of the New York Times (who published fake Iraq WMD articles co-bylined with Judith Miller, articles used to justify the invasion of Iraq), Geoff Winestock of the Moscow Times, Carol Williams of the Los Angeles Times, Steve Liesman of the Wall Street Journal. And of course Michael McFaul, the Clinton Administration’s neoliberal kommissar in Moscow, whose job was to cheer on and whitewash Yeltsin’s catastrophic Washington-backed policies and make sure the foreign hacks kept in line with his bosses in Washington, despite the fact that these policies so profoundly destroyed Russia’s economy and its people’s lives that they made the nationalist Putin backlash a certainty. (Today McFaul is partnered with neocons like William Kristol running a paranoid Russiagate boondoggle—a fitting career choice.)

It seemed so strange to us that an American journalist in post-Soviet Russia would publicly call for a total ban on an American publication. Something wasn’t right with Lally. So we concocted a prank that would test how far she’d be willing to betray basic American journalism principles — commitment to free speech, protection of offensive free speech, journalists and authors. An American friend in Moscow, a student from a top American university, agreed to call up Lally and see if she’d support a boycott of The eXile. We also wanted to see if she’d agree to something so completely outrageous that there was no possible way she would fall for it — agree to assisting a former branch of the KGB known as FAPSI in opening a criminal investigation against The eXile, me and Taibbi, for incitement to hatred. (Nine years later, another Kremlin agency now known as Roskomnadzor shut The eXile down and chased me out for real based on almost identical charges that we used in our Lally prank. You can read the Committee To Protect Journalism’s report on the Kremlin attack against The eXile here. This was a big international news story at the time. But by some amazing journalism feat Lally managed to write thousands of words on The eXile without mentioning the most famous and widely-reported episode of all—the Kremlin shutting us down in 2008, for the same reasons that Lally wanted us censored. Hard to play the victim of “terror” when you’re aligned with Putin’s media crackdown goons, so like so much else in her deceptive screed, Lally simply deleted this rather important episode.)

To understand the type of reporting Lally was doing at that time, you need to get a bit more context, because it’s still wildly underreported and little understood (thanks largely to the foreign press corps). At that time, Russia had already suffered a roughly 50% collapse in its GDP and was now on the verge of falling over the final cliff into total insolvency. Russia in the 1990s suffered the deepest and deadliest peacetime economic depression of the century. An estimated three to six million Russians met what are called “excess deaths”. Paul Klebnikov — the American Forbes editor who was assassinated in Moscow in 2005 — described Russia’s rampant poverty and social collapse from 1992-98 as “a catastrophe without precedent in modern history—the only parallel was with countries destroyed by war, genocide, or famine.” Klebnikov continued:

“Each month thousands of Russians were dying prematurely. Such a drop in life expectancy, labeled ‘excess deaths,’ has always been a standard algorithm in demographers’ calculations of the death toll of the great disasters—whether Stalin’s collectivization in the 1930s, Pol Pot’s rule in Cambodia in the 1970s, or the famine in Ethiopia in the 1980s. American demographer Nicholas Eberstadt estimated that the number of ‘excess deaths’ in Russia between 1992 and 1998 was as high as 3 million. By contrast, Eberstadt observed, Russia’s losses in World War 1 were 1.7 million deaths.”

It was this atrocity, fully organized, advised and funded by the Clinton Administration, and whitewashed by western hacks like Lally, that The eXile covered in all its savagery, which we met with literary savagery.

The same week that I ran an article in The eXile correctly predicting the total collapse of Russia’s economy — the first such English-language article laying out the full inevitable scenario of Russia’s neoliberal collapse —Lally came out with an article with this lede:

“With the ruble strengthening and stock prices rising yesterday, the latest Russian economic crisis began to subside. Ordinary citizens returned to what they do best — persevering and hoping for the best.”

As Taibbi wrote at the time, Lally’s article also came out just as a nationwide miner’s strike ended over months or years worth of unpaid wages and appallingly deadly workplace conditions: “That was Lally’s take on the miners—that ‘what they do best’ is ‘persevering and hoping for the best’ had already won them a year of unpaid labor in the world’s most treacherous hellholes. The article might as well have been headlined, ‘Hey Miners: Eat Shit and Like It!’”

For decades now I’ve been hearing about Walter Duranty’s whitewashing of the Stalin-era famine as the ultimate in journalism malpractice—but those same people who sanctimoniously trash Duranty are oddly silent about the dozens of contemporary Durantys who whitewashed the millions of Russian “excess deaths” that went on right before their eyes during Yeltsin’s reign. If Lally had her way, my article on Russia’s imminent collapse, the only such article at its time, would’ve been censored from Johnsons Russia list and the thousands of narrative-shaping subscribers—in favor of the sort of callous propaganda Lally and her clique were producing.

Getting back to the eXile prank—as it turned out, we were actually shocked by what Lally was willing to do. We figured she might be loathsome enough to agree to the boycott, as bad as that was, but that she’d surely hang up the phone as soon as our caller proposed to Lally a meeting with the former KGB surveillance agency. Here is the transcript of the call made by the American woman who worked with us.

eXile: May I speak to Kathy Lally please?

Lally: This is she.

eXile: Hi, Mrs. Lally, my name is Wendy Helleman, an I’m calling because I’m part of a group that is working to close down the eXile newspaper. I read your name on the Johnson’s List, where my husband published a critique of the eXile, and I thought I’d try to enlist your support.

Lally: I completely sympathize with you. Frankly, I wish they’d just go away. That…the newspaper is an awful thing, they give the Western press a bad name. What they publish is just dreadful!

eXile: Well, that’s why we’re working to get them closed down. We’re sort of working on doing a two-front approach. One is that we’re try9ing to organize a boycott, and the other is that I’m working with some officials from FAPSI [the ex-KGB surveillance agency that snoops on everyone’s communications, equivalent to the NSA] and they said that they could go ahead and press charges against the editors under article 117 of the criminal code, but that they’d need three experts for what they call ‘independent opinions.’ Since I saw your piece on the Johnson’s List, I thought you might be willing to help us out and appear as an expert witness for FAPSI’s case.

Lally: H’m. I’ll have to think about it. I’m not sure how my newspaper would feel about it if I acted in such a role, but I certainly do sympathize with you.

eXile: Well, if not, would you be willing to participate in an organized boycott of the newspaper? We’re going to start by boycotting the eXile’s advertisers and distribution points to force people not to carry or sponsor the newspaper.

Lally: You know, I’ve spoken to someone about that—I’ve personally thought about calling advertisers myself. Although I don’t read the newspaper myself [!], I have heard that they used my name as a phony byline in an article last week. I’m outraged…As for participating in the FAPSI investigation, what exactly would one need to become an ‘expert’ or offer an ‘independent opinion’? What do I need to do, exactly?

eXile: They just need an independent opinion, you know, to get another Western journalist to testify on the language, since it’s in English. We’re trying to convince them that the eXile broke the criminal code which bans literature that incites hatred or violence. [Note: this is roughly the same law later used by the Putin regime to close The eXile and chase me out of the country.]

Lally: Well, I’ll think about it. Please call me tomorrow.

After we published this in The eXile, Lally went after us like a corrupt and vengeful cop. She contacted several American journalists asking bizarre questions about us, claiming it was all information she planned to use in an article about us. That would be fine, but the information she was fishing for was cop-menacing. The editor of the St. Petersburg Times (and soon to be editor of the Moscow Times) frantically got in touch with Taibbi to tell him that Lally had asked him such bizarre menacing questions as “what type of visas eXile employees use” to stay in Russia, and “which of the anti-Chubais oligarchs do you think might be financing them?” [The eXile was the only English-language media critical of Chubais, the most hated figure in Russia, for overseeing Russia’s catastrophic privatization program that created the oligarchy and impoverished nearly everyone else—for this, Chubais was the darling of the western press corps and the Clinton Administration]. Asking about our visas was particularly menacing — it’d be like threatening to report unruly foreign journalists to Trump’s ICE.

In her WaPo hit piece, Lally describes her grotesquely threatening actions this way:

“Taibbi had accused a friend of mine of being paid by Russian oligarchs to write favorable stories, so I thought it was worth asking about the eXile’s connections.”

It’s interesting that Lally and her WaPo editors chose not to disclose the name of “this friend of mine” because that “friend” happens to be Fred Hiatt—the Washington Post’s powerful editorial page editor. Now you start to see why the Washington Post agreed to run a story that was rejected in so many other venues. The vengeful sleaze runs deep.

Back in 1998, Hiatt worked as a WaPo correspondent in Moscow, where he published a shameless PR fluff piece on the billionaire oligarch closest to the former KGB, Vladimir Potanin — one of the only Yeltsin oligarchs to survive through the Vladimir Putin years. Hiatt’s Washington Post article lovingly described Potanin as a “baby billionaire” who “metamorphosed” by some magical process “into one of world’s most influential businessmen” — without mentioning that Potanin got rich by concocting the notorious “loans-for-shares” privatization program, appointing himself Yeltsin’s Finance Minister, then arranging rigged auctions for hugely valuable assets, turning him into a “baby billionaire”—and everyone else in Russia into a dying pauper. So Taibbi asked Hiatt if he had been paid to write that, because there was no other rational explanation we could find. We accompanied that with a prank in which we posed as Potanin calling the Washington Wizards for courtside seats, Harvard University business school to purchase a degree, and the Augusta National Golf Club—brandishing Hiatt’s article for access:

eXile: I am Russian banker, so-called robber baron capitalist, am interested in purchasing your degree.

Harvard: (pause) Uh, sir, you can’t buy the degree, but you can enroll in our program. It’s an intensive 9 week program, and you receive a certificate, not a degree.

eXile: No, this is no good. Do you realize who I am? Fred Hiatt wrote about me in today Washington Post, that I am not typical robber baron. I am ze baby billionaire.

Harvard: We read a lot about Russia and it sounds very exciting.

eXile: Of course it exciting. Now I vant Harvard degree.

Harvard: You can’t buy a degree.

eXile: Maybe instead I build nice cafe for you on campus. Or I can donate small nightclub for Harvard degree.

Harvard: Sir, Harvard is a 350-year-old institution. It’s not all just about money. We’ve turned down princes.

eXile: NOT ABOUT MONEY? Hah!

By Lally’s own account, it was to avenge WaPo editor Fred Hiatt’s honor that she investigated our visa status and “which anti-Chubais oligarch” allegedly funded us — not to avenge her own shame for trying to get us censored and potentially locked up. But she (and her Washington Post editors) made a strategic decision not to mention Fred’s name—because he’s male and that would undermine the thesis of her smear; and because he’s a senior Washington Post editor, and this would suggest to readers something sleazier about the WaPo’s motive for running this hit piece. Omitting this is just another in a series of Lally’s deceptions. This also begins to answer the question: “Why did the Washington Post run an obviously fraudulent hit piece that other media outlets rejected?”

Returning to what happened that weird week of Lally’s cop-vengeance, she did something even more shocking. She got her reporter-husband, Will Englund—who had been jailed by the Russian ex-KGB security services just a few years earlier for reporting on Russia’s chemical weapons program — call Taibbi’s dad in New York, where he worked for NBC. Lally’s husband left a message on Taibbi’s dad’s answering machine that began, “Mike, hi, this is Will Englund. I just thought I’d give you a call… I’m in town to pick up my Pulitzer Prize. I just thought I’d let you know that your son has been harassing my wife to a degree that borders on stalking. I’d like to speak with you about it . . .”

You can’t exaggerate how much pedigree means to these people, but there it is. Pedigree, and proper manners: The twin pillars of the Establishment media faith.

Taibbi’s father eventually called Lally’s husband back. He told Lally’s husband that it was “ironic, to say the least, that his wife would talk about working with something like FAPSI to close [The eXile] down,” and advised him to call Matt himself. “I asked him—what the hell did he want me to do, take away [Matt’s] lunch money?”

Lally’s 2017 article tries hard to obfuscate and dissemble her shameful behavior in her efforts to censor us, and how she responded to that prank. Whereas Lally omits crucial details to build a false case — that most of our targets were male reporters, that the Putin regime eventually shuttered The eXile for the very satire she objected to — her attempts to explain why she agreed to help the ex-KGB agency FAPSI against two American journalists, and why she agreed to a boycott, read like a ten-car pileup of contradictions, half-confessions and non sequiturs. Lally claims she doesn’t remember what happened 20 years ago, but she reports remembering a crackling Russian phone line. She owns up to admitting that she’d never heard of the largest of all the ex-KGB agencies, FAPSI, at the time with an estimated 120,000 employees involved in snooping on journalists like Lally, who it now appears was blissfully unaware of that fact. She says the transcript “didn’t sound at all like me” but then contradicts herself, saying, “I don’t remember my words 20 years ago.” In other words, she doesn’t remember saying anything, but she remembers the “crackling Russian phone line” as well as the “tone” of her voice in that conversation. She’d’ve been better off just taking the Fifth on this.

The most stunning part of her explanation, and again I can’t believe an editor wouldn’t flag this, was when she tried excusing her failure to know what FAPSI was or to make out what our eXile caller was asking because, “We got so many odd calls as the [Moscow] bureau, some from the mentally ill, some from those with serious grievances, some from people with mysterious motives.” In other words, Lally wants her readers to believe that all sorts of homeless, mentally ill American women called the Baltimore Sun’s Moscow bureau office all hours of the day, so often that Lally could no longer tell the crazies from articulate educated American women identifying themselves as members of the Johnsons Russia List community.

Lally concludes: “I don’t remember my words of 20 years ago — I made an effort to forget the eXile and its editors — but I never had any intention of organizing a boycott.”

She doesn’t remember, she forgot all about us, but if she did agree to organize a boycott, she certainly didn’t intend to.

Something tells me that Lally wanted to flatly deny it and thereby lie, but she wasn’t able to convince even her own editors, whose necks are on the line if they let her get away with lying. Whatever the case, Lally owes us and all journalists here and in Russia a giant apology for betraying the most basic principles of the profession.

But it’s the larger point that Lally tries to make which is so problematic. There are a lot of things the eXile can and rightly should be trashed for today. People don’t live in the context of the 1990s Yeltsin catastrophe — except in the sense that we’re still dealing with the blowback from our role in ruling over Russia’s national tragedy, especially if you believe that our shitlord Trump was installed by vengeful Russians — so it’s hard to fault people encountering eXile’s gross, aggressive and transgressive satire for the first time in 2017, in America, for being offended. You’ll never understand the way we wrote unless you understand the indifference, amounting in many cases to outright gloating, with which American mainstream journalists reacted to the horrors of 1990s Russia.

But Lally’s article goes much further: She equates having her feelings hurt by a satirical rag that she tried to censor and even set up for a Russian cop arrest — to #MeToo victims of rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment. That is, to put it mildly, quite an opportunistic stretch. Lally admits she forgot about us “for years.” She writes that although the heckling satire made her “angry and upset” at the time (as vicious satire tends to), nevertheless “my self-esteem remained intact and my life moved along.” This is the very opposite of the sorts of permanent, raw emotional wounds and life scars that #MeToo victims have been airing out since the Weinstein story broke. By admitting this, Lally reveals herself as a vengeful and unprincipled hack who wants belated payback for being publicly embarrassed about her willingness to censor journalists and subject them to a Russian state goon stomping.

I was wondering if I’d written anything about Lally myself—most if not all the Lally material had been written by Taibbi, most of it great and funny, some of it —especially the “fat ankles” stuff — deeply embarrasing. Not that I didn’t write far more offensive shit myself, it’s just a matter of taste. I’m a black humor/offensive-satire snob, and those “fat ankles” descriptions come off as lazy jock jokes, and shift sympathy back to the real perpetrator of this ugly episode for no good literary reason. Lally had all the power in that dynamic — a credentialed pedigreed member of the official American journalism guild — and she crudely wielded that power to have us completely excluded. That is the story, and that’s the one point where the satirical approach to that story was weakened.

Anders Aslund was the top western advisor on Yeltsin’s catastrophic “shock therapy” program and a frequent eXile target. His McCarthyist tweet sums up their sleazy alliance

Anyway, I’d forgotten that I did write a critical piece on Lally’s hack journalism back in early 1999 — nearly a year after the censorship/FAPSI scandal. This was the very nadir of the Yeltsin decade, post-collapse, when Russia declared itself bankrupt and unable to meet its obligations. Mass unemployment followed, and for the first time in perhaps a century, some one-third of the population had to survive on subsistence farming to eat, growing potatoes and cucumbers and whatever else would grow in their dacha plots or on their balconies.

Here I’ll quote from Lally’s article, then my response.

First, Lally’s stunning display of crude orientalism towards Russians at their lowest point, falsely describing their flu remedies in ways that made them look like backwards savages. This crude characterization of Russians became a necessary trope for an American audience that didn’t want to take responsibility for the horrors of the 1990s when Russia was essentially a colony of the Clinton White House. Rather than take blame ourselves for helping destroy and depopulate Russia, articles making Russians look like hopelessly primitive savages redirected that blame back onto the colonized. It’s their fault we couldn’t civilize them with our shock therapy medicine—they’re too hopelessly backwards, in spite of our wonderful intentions.

Headlined “Moscow’s flu war means breathtaking measures. There’s no holding back garlic, onions, dirty socks, cognac” — Lally’s absolutely non-satirical piece smugly describes Russians “hanging dirty socks around the neck…rubbing the soles of the feet with the juice of a raw onion every night” and other barbarian home remedies. Here’s a taste:

Sasha Fominikh, a driver at a Moscow factory, read a newspaper article the other day that suggested hanging a pair of dirty socks around the neck. He decided against that, but when he felt a cold coming on, he tried out a second method — rubbing the soles of the feet with the juice of a raw onion every night before going to bed.

“It makes the feet sweat a lot,” Fominikh says, “which helps get rid of the fever.” He also drinks a little cognac and some tea with jam to prevent a cold from developing into something worse.

At the first sign of a sore throat, housewife Lena Slivkina starts to rinse her throat with cognac at least three times a day. “I don’t swallow it, by the way” she says.

“If I have a bad cough, I boil oats in milk for two hours and then drink it three times a day. Three days and no cough.”

Zina Basova, a street sweeper, eats garlic all year round. “If I still get the flu,” she says, “I use a lot of honey with tea.”

I responded to Lally’s journalistic atrocity by going to my local pharmacy in Moscow, asking the pharmacists if any of it was true, and then writing it up. Heres some of what I wrote at the time:

You almost wonder, after reading Lally’s article, whether Russians have yet developed a complex set of language skills or the ability to create fire. I for one decided to check.

So I went down to the closest Apteka, or pharmacy, on my street corner. I asked one of the pharmacists there, Lyubov Luskutova, if drinking cognac or smelling old socks or rubbing onions on your feet is the best way to overcome the flu epidemic that threatens all of us here. Surprisingly, the native spoke in an intelligible language, expressing a dazzling variety of emotions–such as bewilderment and confused laughter. She said she’d never in her life heard of rubbing onions on feet or snorting dirty socks in order to ward off the flu. She works in a pharmacy–yes, that’s right, Russians actually have pharmacies. And at pharmacies, they sell medicines.

So just to set Lally’s Baltimore-area readers straight, I’d like to note that the most common medicines to fight flus and colds sold here at my local apteka (and at the zillions of apteky in Moscow, including in nearly every metro station and every street block) are Tylenol flu medicine, Coldrex, Coldrex Nite, TheraFlu Tylenol for kids, and Lorane. For sore throats, most buy either Strepsils or Hall’s mints. The prices are high in ruble terms–Lorane costs 74 rubles a bottle, or about 3 dollars. But Luskutova assured me that sales aren’t noticeably down from last year’s flu season period. “People have to live,” she said just this morning. I’d personally doubt that sales are as stable as she thinks, but I will definitely take her word over Lally’s.

Other popular remedies for the flu are staying home from work and sleeping, drinking tea with honey, and drinking juice. Maybe these things weren’t wacky enough to fit into Lally’s “see how savage the Russians are” piece. Imagine the honest lead: “Russians are preparing for the onslaught of flu by buying Tylenol and Theraflu medicines from their local pharmacies.” Naw, it wouldn’t sell, as they say in Hollywood. Doesn’t make them seem savage enough.

Russians thankfully don’t stoop to mocking stories about how we Americans drop billions a year on totally useless vitamin supplements just because some quack named Linus Pauling told us to do so, and won a big ol’ award for it. Which gets to the point: THERE IS NO CURE FOR THE FLU! Duh!

I wrote this response because it seems that the old colonialist attitude is seeping back into the Western journalist narrative as never before. [Up until Russia’s 1998 financial collapse] at least you had two narratives: good reformers versus savage old commies; or, see how much better we are than the Russians. Now… readers back home are left with only one narrative: how many ways can you paint a Russian as a savage. . . . As Jean MacKenzie wrote in a November 24th, 1998 installment of her Moscow Times column, “Confessions of a Russophile”: “the last vestiges of the light [in] this dark, savage country are slowly dying out.”

That’s right: even Moscow’s self-proclaimed Russophile openly refers to Russia as “this dark, savage country.” …

You see? Lally’s gloating, smug colonialist triumphalism was the norm in expat circles. That was what we were fighting. And sometimes the outrage got out of control. But it’s beyond grotesque that our outrage should be picked over for language crimes by a sloppy, inept, conscience-free writer like Lally. When the crimes of Western journalists during the Yeltsin era are chronicled, I kinda think it’ll be the callous triumphalism with which she and her Clintonite buddies watched millions of Russians die that are condemned–not the tonal lapses of a low-budget dissident rag like eXile, shaking its puny fist at this corruption.

Posted: December 18th, 2017