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Belarus is headlining war news again — Russia is preparing a fresh offensive against Ukraine from Belarus, the main staging point for its original offensive last year to take Kyiv. Or at least that’s what they’re saying.

What’s lost in these stories is how strange and impossible it would’ve been just a couple years ago to imagine Russia being able to use Belarus as a staging ground for its military offensives. We’ve already forgotten that as recently as 2020, Lukashenko was flirting with NATO partnership, hosting anti-Russia hawks Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, and denying Russia the right to set up an airbase in Belarus (let alone hosting an entire invasion force).

Then came the big western-backed regime-change movement to overthrow Lukashenko and replace him with the West’s favorite, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya — and the next thing you know, Belarus is the Russian military’s doormat, to do with as it pleased.

Russia-Belarus relations pre-autumn 2020 regime-change movement

In our end-of-2022 RWN episode, we discussed one of the biggest overlooked factors that would’ve influenced Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine the way he did, when he did: Belarus. The story is a bit complicated and can get a bit tricky to follow in a podcast, and some subscribers either had followup questions or requests for some clarification. So we figured the easiest thing to do would be to write out the scenario we discussed. Makes it easier to remember some of the names and events this way.

To recap: in December 2022, the New York Times published a massive graphics-heavy, multi-bylined investigation, “Putin’s War”, into the origins and conduct of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, using allegedly leaked classified battle plans, intercepts, and good ol’ NYT hackery. The article has everything you’d expect from the Times: it’s a slippery cocktail of lies, propaganda, and occasional revelations, and it’s up to you the reader to sort it all out, if you have the time & energy.

The stated purpose of the graphics-heavy investigation, according to one of the authors, Anton Troianovski, was to answer “one of the central questions of the war in Ukraine: Why has Russia bungled its invasion so badly?” Leave it to the Times to use that word “bungled” — you won’t ever hear it in the natural world, but by gum they love their “bungled” in establishment medialand.  

Anyway, ever since the second week or so into the war, westerners have enjoyed nothing more than ruminating over Russia’s military failures. Russia’s crimes, of course, are also a hot topic; but for sheer joy and self-esteem boosting, nothing beats obsessing over Russia’s failures. Because to ask “Gosh, why does Russia’s military suck so badly?” is to gloat, O sweet gloat, and that is its own reward, more soothing now to the Acela Corridor than in living memory, after a string of 21st-c. US military defeats (or “bungles,” in the parlance of The Times.)

The problem is that while focusing on Russia’s litany of screwups reminds us how totally awesome we are (and helps us forget our egg-shaped GWOT-era war record), it distracts from one of the great mysteries of the war: Why did Putin decide to wage the war the way he did — a large-scale invasion centered on overpowering Kyiv and decapitating Ukraine’s government — when he did, in February 2022?

There’s an unspoken assumption today that could not have been simply assumed 18 months before Putin’s invasion — the idea that Belarus was always Putin’s doormat to use as he pleased. That’s an entirely new input, Belarus’s total submission to Moscow, and it can’t be relied on to last much longer if recent Belarus-Russia history is any guide.

Instead of investigating the Belarus assumption in Putin’s war plan, the NYT dabbled in weird body language quackery to try to answer why: “Some reported with concern that ‘he’s got this warlike twinkle in his eyes,’ a person close to the Kremlin said.” Serious people have put forward other theories to explain Putin’s war plan and timing: that he suffered from some kind of covid isolation psychosis‘roid ragecancerparkinson’sa strange smell, and so on. Naturally, the Times goes there too: “A former Putin confidant compared the dynamic to the radicalization spiral of a social media algorithm, feeding users content that provokes an emotional reaction.”

But all this mushy pop psychologizing leaves a lot to be desired. For a lot of us who’ve been writing about Putin over the years, the war didn’t fit the Putin pattern — a sort of highly pragmatic, low-key malevolence – we’d grown used to. Psychologizing about the warlike twinkle in his eye may be titillating to the Times readers, but meaty explanation it ain’t.

One thing the big NYT opus reminded us of was how taking Kyiv was the centerpiece of Putin’s initial February 2022 Russian invasion plan. He calculated, wrongly, and far as I can tell very stupidly, that Ukraine would be too factionalized, corrupt and dysfunctional (ie, too Ukrainian) to put up any serious resistance — that they would be overwhelmed by the shocking scale of the invasion, and that by taking Kyiv, Russia would either capture or chase out the western-backed regime, and replace it with…with what?

So, the plan was to take Kyiv. And the way Russia planned to take Kyiv was by invading from the closest point to Kyiv — Belarus, whose border with Ukraine is a direct line north of Kyiv, rather than from Russia proper, which is much further away, or via the heavily-fortified Donbas.

Putin’s entire invasion plan in February 2022 hinged on using Belarus


This is the part of the story that’s been lost: Belarus as the lynchpin to Putin’s initial war strategy of taking Kyiv. The initial thrusts against Kyiv all came from Russian forces massed in Belarus, whose southern border is far closer to Kyiv than anywhere in Russia or the Russian-backed Donbas. Put simply, it’s much easier to plan an armored assault on Kyiv from Belarus than from Russia proper.

Since the war started, we’ve forgotten about all the problems Russia had in its relationship with Belarus and just assumed that it’s somehow natural and obvious that Putin could use Belarus to stage his invasion. Because after all Belarus is led by another authoritarian baddie, Alexander Lukashenko. And as we’re told over and over these days, authoritarians are genetically prone to liking each other, and they do baddie solids for each other. Because that’s what bad guys do in DC or Marvel comics: they baddie up together, and laugh evilly when they’re together doing their baddie thing.

But before August 2020, there was no way Russia could have used Belarus to invade Ukraine. A year earlier, in 2019, Belarus wouldn’t even allow Russia to set up a new airbase in Belarus to station Russian Sukhoi-27s, let alone host a massive Russian invasion force.

In fact, right up to August 2020, the United States and the EU were making a huge play to peel Belarus away from Russia’s orbit, while at the same time, Belarus’s dictator Lukashenko was publicly attacking the Kremlin for “meddling” and “puppeteering” the anti-Lukashenko opposition. He was jailing Kremlin-backed Belarussian politicians, and mass-arresting and torturing Russian military contractors on charges of attempting to stage a pro-Kremlin coup. Relations were nearly at the breaking point…

And yet, 18 months later, Russia was able to use Belarus as it pleased.

What changed in August 2020 was a massive protest movement in Belarus, backed by the West, to overthrow Lukashenko and replace him with the western-backed opposition candidate, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. It was this failed western-backed regime-change movement against Lukashenko — and the sanctions imposed by the EU and Washington to isolate and collapse Lukashenko’s regime  — that once and for all forced Lukashenko to stop playing both sides off each other, and instead throw himself at Putin’s mercy to save his regime. For a couple of months in early autumn 2020, the smart money was on Lukashenko going the way of YanukovychCeacescu and other color revolution losers — but Putin, after waiting for Lukashenko to get so desperate for help he’d agree to any of Putin’s demands, came in and saved Lukashenko’s regime. And in return, for the first time in their 20-year frenemy relationship, Putin got whatever he wanted from Lukashenko.

To understand how this happened, we have to go back and recover the recent history of Russia-Belarus relations, which was often thorny, as they say, sometimes outright hostile, but never as master-servant as it is today ever since the failed western-backed protest movement a couple of years ago.

Some history: Lukashenko was first elected president of Belarus in 1994 running against the catastrophic neoliberal politics — privatization and westernization and hyperinflation — that destroyed Belarus’s economy and left most people in wretched poverty, much like in neighboring Ukraine and Russia. That 1994 election is generally considered post-Soviet Belarus’s only “free and fair” election, and Lukashenko won it with 80% of the vote, promising to end shock therapy hyperinflation by freezing prices and bringing back something like a Soviet-style semi-command economy; crushing capitalist mafiosi and corruption; and moving Belarus closer to Russia rather than to the West.

Russia at that time was the poster child of Washington-backed neoliberalism, and the Yeltsin regime’s leading figures were fanatical anti-communists, so they were wary of Lukashenko’s revanchist politics catching on in Russia, where Yeltsin was deeply unpopular. But Yeltsin’s security structures were all in favor of deepening ties with Belarus — and anyone else who wanted closer security ties with Russia, a tiny club in 1994 that was shrinking by the day. And politically, just having a neighbor like Lukashenko saying he wants to deepen ties with Russia was good populist politics, even if Lukashenko rejected Yeltsin’s neoliberal program.

While Russian state television savaged Lukashenko as a throwback hick and dangerous buffoon, in 1997, Yeltsin and Lukashenko signed a union agreement that started the process of integrating the two countries — or at least, pretending to integrate them. In December 1999, just before Yeltsin resigned and handed power to Putin, he and Lukashenko created a more formal Russia-Belarus superstate with a High Council and plans to unify their currencies and other structures. For Lukashenko, a fully integrated union could have been a way for him to take control over the superstate itself — ie, Russia — given how unpopular Yeltsin was. At the very least, it meant cheap, subsidized  Russian products, particularly fossil fuels, that helped Lukashenko stabilize Belarus’ economy and inflation, and allowed him to create a weird sort of semi-Soviet, semi-socialist state that actually managed to work, contra all orthodox free-market theory of the time.

And Lukashenko’s semi-soviet economic model did work. In 2018,Belarus’s GDP per capita was more than twice as high as neighboring Ukraine’s, and higher than all the FSU countries except for Russia and the Baltics. As Bloomberg noted in late 2019:

“[Belarus’s] transition from command to semi-market economy, delivered at the speed of a mud-bound tractor, has by some economic measures made this a better place to live than any other former Soviet republic, barring the three Baltic States that joined the European Union. Belarus scores better on inequality than any EU nation (including the likes of Denmark), and has a smaller percentage of people living [in] poverty than any other part of what was once the Soviet Union, half of the EU’s 28 member states, or the U.S.”

But when Yeltsin handed power to Putin in 2000, he pretty much ruined any big plans Lukashenko might’ve had of George Jefferson-ing his way on up from ruling little Belarus, to taking over a giant Russia-Belarus superstate. Unlike Yeltsin, Putin was young, healthy, sober — and popular.

Under Putin’s first two terms, Russia started getting richer and more powerful, fast. The threat shifted from a potential Lukashenko populist takeover of Russia-Belarus, to Russia swallowing up Belarus and Lukashenko with it.

The two countries needed each other and professed public love for each other, and each had a lot to offer: Russia offered Belarus subsidized fossil fuels and a large market for Belarussian exports; Belarus could provide a military and political bulwark against NATO, which was expanding eastward to Russia’s borders. The one thing the Kremlin could not allow was losing Belarus to NATO.

In practice, this meant Lukashenko’s best policy was maintaining as much Belorussian independence as possible, while squeezing Russia of all the subsidized economic benefits it could. “Da, da! Of course Brother Russia, we’ll become one with you any day now, just keep that cheap oil’n’gas flowing and it’ll happen, we swear!” That meant Luk talked the confederation talk, and allowed a certain level of military cooperation inside Belarus so long as it wasn’t too threatening… but it also meant Russian power, including Russian “oligarchs” (as Russian billionaires are called), out of Minsk.

As commodities like oil and gas prices soared in the first decade of the 2000s, the Kremlin became increasingly annoyed with Lukashenko’s game. Things first came to a head in 2004, when Gazprom tried raising prices on natural gas to Belarus — the new price was still way below-market, but higher than it had been — and demanded control over the Belorussian portion of the Yamal-Europe gas pipeline (which brought gas from Russia’s gas fields in western Siberia to European customers in Germany and elsewhere).

Belarus refused to pay more for Russian gas claiming it couldn’t afford it, so Gazprom did what your local utility would do and cut gas supplies to Belarus. But Belarus decided to play hardball, and tapped (ie, stole) gas from the Yamal pipeline, gas that was meant for Russia’s customers in Germany and the Netherlands. That meant war — you used to hear a lot about Russia’s gas wars with Ukraine and other countries not in Russia’s direct orbit, but its gas wars with Belarus were legend. Gazprom escalated by shutting down the entire pipeline in February 2004 — no gas for anybody, Belarus or Europe. It took just a day of shutting down the gas pipeline to break Lukashenko and force him to agree to the new higher prices — and to selling control over Belarus’s portion of the pipeline to Gazprom.

Ironically, this first gas dispute between Russia and Belarus played a big role in accelerating the Nord Stream-1 gas pipeline project directly linking up Russia and Germany, as a way to protect them from Lukashenko’s whims.

In 2006, Lukashenko held a rigged election in which he supposedly won 84% of the vote. It’s not that he wasn’t more or less popular — but it wasn’t like he was going to allow a fair and free test of his popularity, at least as far as the West’s rules go.

2006 was the peak era of Washington’s color revolutions. Over the previous 3 years, there was the Rose Revolution (Georgia, 2003), Orange Revolution (Ukraine, 2004), and Tulip Revolution (Kyrgyzstan, 2005), all backed by the West and our good friends at the National Endowment for Democracy. Belarus had its own branded color revolution movement in 2006, the unfortunate-named “Jeans Revolution.” Lukashenko quickly crushed the “Jeans Revolution” protests, sparking sanctions by the EU and US on Belarus, including a visa travel ban on the Batka (“big daddy”) Lukashenko himself.

Putin, on the other hand, supported Lukashenko’s election win, however rigged, and his stomping of the ”Jeans revolution.” You really have to wonder who thought that name up, “jeans revolution” — is anyone really surprised it flopped?

Problems between Putin and Luk heated up again early 2007, when they were locked in another fossil fuel price spat — this time it was an oil war. Cheap natural gas was important for Belarussian energy (and transit fees), but cheap below-market Russian oil was used for Belarus’s lucrative oil refinery industry, which Belarus exported at world market prices and pocketed the difference. Which was a hefty profit, considering how quickly oil prices were rising during Dubya-Cheney’s wretched reign.

So Russia doubled the price of the oil it sold to Belarus, and raised its export tax on oil that passed through Belarus to Europe via the Druzhba oil pipeline, effectively slashing Belarus’s take even further. Belarus responded by charging Russia more to transit its oil through Belarus, and by stealing more Russian oil from the pipeline, leading again to a full cutoff of Russian oil supplies, screaming from EU customers, and Belarus quickly caving, again.

In 2008, relations between the US and Belarus went downhill fast when a top US embassy official attended anti-Lukashenko protests, and Belarus responded by expelling 10 US diplomats. Since 2008 up through to today, there has been no US Ambassador in Belarus, and almost no US-Belarus diplomatic relations to speak of (as you’ll see, that almost changed in 2018-20).

However, later in 2008, Lukashenko’s relations with the West warmed a bit. That summer, Georgia got stomped by Russia after it tried seizing South Ossetia. To the surprise of some western observers, Lukashenko wasn’t happy about the whole Russia-stomping-its-neighbor thing. It wasn’t that Lukashenko supported Georgia, it was just frightening to behold on a visceral level. Which probably explains why Lukashenko refused Russia’s request that Belarus recognize the breakaway statelets South Ossetia and Abkhazia — and for this, the EU rewarded Belarus by easing some sanctions.

By 2008, Putin was no longer president of Russia, and a lot of foreign policy knuckleheads in Washington and Brussels thought they could cleverly peel softer, more “liberal” parts of the Russian world away – the “liberal” president Medvedev from “hard-line” PM Putin; Belarus from Russia, and so on.

Starting in 2010, these tensions started to heat up. Lukashenko was due to hand himself another rigged landslide election at the end of 2010. He was already squabbling with Moscow about a new round of price hikes for Russian oil and gas. The Kremlin had grown sick of Lukashenko’s games — pretending to be Russia’s eternal little brother to keep the subsidies rolling, while at the same time fiercely guarding Belarus’s sovereignty.

Russian state television, which beamed into Belarus, savaged Lukashenko and openly courted the leading opposition candidate for the 2010 election. There was even talk of Russia prepping its own version of a color revolution to get rid of Lukashenko once and for all and install a friendlier regime. As Der Spiegel wrote that year,

“Ahead of [2010] presidential elections in Belarus, Moscow has subjected the incumbent Lukashenko to a series of attacks in the media and is preparing to strongly intervene in its neighbor’s election campaign. Ironically enough, it could end up being Russia’s leadership — not normally known for a love of democracy — that help[s] bring about the downfall of the man commonly referred to as Europe’s last dictator.”

The number 80 must be Luk’s lucky number, because once again Lukashenko claimed he won 80% of the vote in the December 2010 election. Protests broke out in Minsk, which turned out to be a lot larger and more organized than anyone expected. The West wasn’t exactly happy about those protests — it had spent much of 2010 courting the Belarussian dictator, sensing a possible opening from the worsening relations with Russia. The bare minimum that the West asked of Lukashenko was to be a bit more moderate about his election theft — don’t steal the elections too crudely, and please for gods sakes don’t crack too many protesters’ skulls, so that we, the human rights loving West, can continue cleverly peeling you away from our rival Russia.

But Lukashenko couldn’t help himself: the police crackdown, caught on camera and shown on TV news all over the world, was too gory to ignore. So once again relations with the West cooled, and Russia and Lukashenko were besties once more. Back-and-forth, back-and-forth, only this familiar pendulum swing only accelerates.

New York Times article on the brutal crackdown captures some of these tensions:

“Antigovernment protesters were beaten back by swarms of riot police officers on Sunday when they tried to storm the Belarus government headquarters here in an outburst of anger and frustration over the apparent and, many said, wholly unsurprising re-election of the country’s authoritarian president, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko.

 “…A reporter and a photographer for The New York Times were among those who were beaten, but they were not seriously injured. The police slammed people to the ground and held them there for several minutes, pushing their heads into the snow, before suddenly leaving.

 “…The rising tensions on election night belied a concerted attempt by Mr. Lukashenko to make these elections appear more democratic in an effort to get money from the West as relations with his longtime patron, the Kremlin, have declined.

 “Many Western countries, particularly in the European Union, have appeared heartened by these developments, and have sought to engage Mr. Lukashenko. Poland and Germany recently offered Belarus $3.5 billion in aid if this election was deemed free and fair.”

Lukashenko’s double-game with Russia also carried over to the economic sector, where he went medieval if necessary to keep powerful Kremlin-connected business interests off of his turf. A good example of this was the so-called Baumgertner Case: In 2013, a cartel deal between Russia’s Uralkili — one of the world’s largest potash fertilizer producers — and Belarus’s counterpart, Belaruskali, fell apart, leaving the Belarusian partner in a desperate commercial position. So Lukashenko set a trap to force the Russian potash “oligarch” to back off: Belarus’s prime minister invited Uraliki’s CEO, Vladislav Baumgertner, to Minsk for negotiations. When those negotiations didn’t go Belarus’s way, they did what Lukashenko does to everyone he dislikes: threw Uralkili’s CEO in jail, accusing Russia of trying to dominate Belarus’s key fertilizer-agriculture industry. Belarus also put out an international warrant for Russian billionaire “oligarch” Selim Kerimov’s arrest (Kerimov was one of Uralkili’s largest shareholders at the time).

Kerimov was never arrested by Lukashenko, but Uraliki’s Russian CEO, Baumgertner, wound up spending over a year in a Belarussian jail before being released on bail. That was how Lukashenko negotiated with his closest friend and ally. It was never a smooth relationship.

Then came the Maidan protests & coup in 2014, followed quickly by Russia illegally annexing Crimea and supporting Donbas separatists in the breakaway Luhansk and Donetsk republics. You might think that Lukashenko would’ve been most bothered by the way western-backed protesters violently overthrew Ukraine’s democratically elected Russia-friendly president, Viktor Yanukovych. But that’s not quite how Lukashenko saw it. The Batka may not have liked the Maidan coup, but he was arguably more threatened by Russia breaking taboo and seizing Crimea, a weaker neighbor’s territory. It reminded him how precarious his own hold on power could be, especially since he couldn’t turn to NATO the way Ukraine seemed to be able to.

So Lukashenko surprised everyone by refusing to recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea. That made him an instant darling in both Europe and especially in Ukraine, where polls showed Lukashenko became a hero for his stand against Russian imperialism. As late as 2019, a Ukraine poll named Lukashenko the most popular foreign leader.

The chaos that consumed Ukraine following the Maidan coup, plus the subsequent Russian invasion, also helped Lukasheno’s popularity at home. Luk brought stability and better standards of living; Ukraine and its color revolutions only brought chaos and violence.

It was Lukashenko’s independent stand on the 2014 conflict that positioned him to play the great mediator between Russia and Ukraine, along with Germany and France, in the peace talks known as the Minsk Accords.

By 2015, the West was really accelerating its play for Belarus. Luk won yet another rigged landslide election in October, registering 84% of the vote, and to the relief of NATOland, there were few protests and few cracked skulls to ruin PR efforts to rebrand Lukashenko as a potential maverick ally of the famously-humanitarian West.

Meanwhile, Belarus was also gumming up the works on Russia’s plans to build an airbase in Belarus.

Delighted with these anti-Russian moves from Minsk, both the EU and the Obama Admin softened their sanctions against Lukashenko — once again making a play to peel off Belarus.

From 2015-20, relations between Lukashenko and Putin went downhill fast. In 2018 Lukashenko appointed a new government stacked with so-called “market reformers” (read: western-friendly) led by prime minister Sergei Rumas and his new finance minister, Maxim Yermalovich.

Russia responded to this by naming a close security services ally of Putin’s, Mikhail Babich, ambassador to Belarus. Belarus was signaling that it was ready to step up the playing-both-sides game; whereas Russia, by appointing a scary silovik like Babich as its envoy to Belarus, was letting Lukashenko know it was done playing his game. Babich had previously served as Putin’s viceroy in Chechnya early in the Second Chechen War, and later Babich served as the Kremlin overseer (plenipotentiary) of the Volga Region as part of Putin’s “vertical power” structure. After the Maidan coup, Putin tried namimg Babich as Russia’s ambassador to Kyiv, but Ukraine refused to let him in and he never took up that post. So instead, in 2018, Babich took over the Russian Embassy in Minsk, where locals started referring to him as the “governor general.” Which is basically like calling him “The Viceroy.”

What Babich’s appointment to Minsk meant was that Putin was done playing Lukashenko’s game. The Kremlin was planning to bring that relationship to a head rather than waiting for a Maidan in Minsk.

Babich went to work putting the squeeze on. He publicly flaunted meetings with anti-Lukashenko opposition figures, and publicly criticized and mocked the Batka in media interviews.

Then Russia dropped a fresh economic bomb, announcing plans to end for good its oil and gas subsidies to Belarus. This wasn’t a mere tinkering with the subsidies levels as in years past, but more like a complete phase-out that would blow a hole in Belarus’s budget billions of dollars wide, and destroy the country’s vital refined-oil export industry. The squeeze was on.

Relations went from bad to worse, fast. In December 2018, Lukashenko and Putin were yelling at each other on live TV at a conference in St Petersburg. A couple months later, Lukashenko started publicly calling for closer ties between Belarus and NATO.

This opportunity was not going unnoticed in Washington, Brussels, or in the weapons industry’s ideas mill known as The Atlantic Council — where one A. Wess Mitchell, the top US State Dept official for Europe and Eurasian Affairs at the time, gave a speech in which he placed Belarus in the same exalted category as Ukraine and Georgia as key “frontier states” whose “national sovereignty and territorial integrity [offers] the surest bulwark against Russian neo-imperialism.” You hear a lot of blather these days about Russian colonialism and imperialism from DC and Brussels-linked think-tanks and academics, and from Ukraine’s point of view it’s very real. But here you have a top US official in the Empire naming Belarus as a “bulwark” against “Russian neo-imperialism” — to the applause of the Atlantic Council. To quote Michael Scott, my how the turntables have…t-…

As we’ll see, Secretary Mitchell wasn’t just spittin’ empty words. Within a year of his speech, in September 2019, Trump’s neocon psycho-at-large, John Bolton, made a high-profile visit to Belarus to lay the groundwork for the Big Peel-off. Bolton’s was the first such visit by a top-ranked US official to Belarus in over a decade. Things were moving fast.

A couple of weeks after Bolton went to Minsk for some weird happy photo ops with Lukasehnko, Russia publicly complained that their planned airbase in Belarus had been shot down for good, which Sergei Lavrov called “an unpleasant episode.”

Yes, this really happened just a few years ago

As you can see, this does not describe a Belarus that would host a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. They wouldn’t even host a frickin airbase!

And Lukashenko was just starting to flaunt his big new NATO friends. In a December 2019 interview with the liberal Russian radio outlet Ekho Moskvy, Lukashenko warned Russia to back off, or else there’d be trouble with NATO:

“If Russia tries to violate our sovereignty as some people say, you know how the global community will respond; they will be drawn into a war. The West and NATO won’t tolerate that because they would see it as a threat to themselves. In that sense, they would be right.”

Lukashenko was scrambling around for an out — how could he maintain dictatorial power without getting swallowed up by one of the two big mafias: the West with its “democracy promotion” machine, or Russia’s overwhelming military-economic power from the east?

Russia wanted to force Lukashenko to finally shit or get off the pot about integration with Russia — no more playing the two-sides game! The Kremlin made it explicit both in public and private that if Belarus wanted to keep those all-important Russian subsidies coming, it would have to agree once and for all to real integration: a single currency, a single political supra-government integrating the two countries. No more cake & eating it for Luk.

As 2020 began, Lukashenko scrambled hard to keep his options open, which in practice meant accelerating his rapprochement with Washington and Brussels.

In January, his defense chief publicly called for closer ties with NATO. And in February, Secretary of State Pompeo visited Belarus, chumming it up with the dictator and pledging first-ever US crude oil shipments to wean Belarus off Russia.

2020: Year of the Neocon Bromance

The first US crude shipments reached Belarus in May, just as Washington announced it was reestablishing relations by sending its first ambassador to Belarus since 2008 — a bigwig foreign service officer, Julie Fisher, who has spent much of her career moving back and forth between high level jobs in the State Department and in NATO headquarters.

And in case it seems counterintuitive today to imagine that Lukashenko really thought he could’ve been saved by NATO, all he had to do was look to the example of Montenegro’s notorious mob boss/dictator-for-life, Milo Djukanovic. Let’s take a minute to look at the Montenegran autocrat’s example here. Djukanovic has been ruling Montenegro since 1991, even longer than Lukashenko has been ruling Belarus. Djukanovic has a rap record in the West, and was even named “Person Of The Year In Organized Crime and Corruption” by the OCCRP. In the 1990s, he was facing the Hague for his support of Milosevic’s wars. But he flipped. And as soon as Djukanovic made good with NATO, all of his sins were magically washed away as his reward for ditching America’s official enemies, Russia and Serbia. 

Montenegrin autocrat Djukanovic: from western villain…

…to Made Man in the NATO Mafia

In 2017, Djukanovic positioned himself as a victim of Russian and Serbian conspiracies to overthrow the tiny coastal country’s pseudo-democracy. While playing victim to Russia, he engineered a highly controversial (ie, rigged) vote to bring Montenegro into the warm embrace of NATO, and voila! No one talks about Djukanovic’s litany of crimes and human rights violations anymore — to do so would only play into the Kremlin’s hands, donchaknow! He’s a made member of The DC Cartel, the only mafia family that matters!

So Lukashenko could look to Montenegro’s corrupt autocrat-for-life as a clear example of the rewards he could expect if he flipped for good and delivered Belarus to NATO.

But first, Luk would have to deal with another round of Belarussian elections, scheduled for August 2020. His popularity had been falling since he stole the 2015 election — Belarus’s economy had stagnated and sagged alongside its patron Russia’s economy. And people, especially young people, were just getting sick of him. That’s the problem with autocrats who stick around too long — people don’t like seeing the same face over and over, makes it too easy to project all their failures and problems on that one face. This is one of the devious strengths of our system of oligarchy-with-democratic-trappings: keep changing those hominid faces up front, and the rest of the chimps won’t have time to work up enough organized hate, they’ll slash each other’s throats instead while dreaming big dreams about the next hominid face to pin their hopes and hates on. And Lukashenko’s notorious human rights record didn’t help endear him, especially among youngs and urban professionals.

Meanwhile, frontline NATO countries and Washington had been funding and training pro-democracy Belorussian activists as a Plan B in case Lukashenko didn’t flip. The West wasn’t putting all their chips on Lukashenko doing a Djukanovic turn, but they were pursuing that possibility with more energy than ever. If that failed, there was always the pro-western protesters for leverage.

Russia’s strategy to deal with Lukashenko was a bit more simple: squeeze Lukashenko’s economy to make him break; and support the leading opposition candidate against Lukashenko, a Gazprom-connected banker named Viktor Babariko, for leverage. It helped that polls put Russia’s candidate for the August 2020 elections ahead of Lukashenko by a pretty good margin, so Russia seemed to be in a good position to deal with a potential vassal-turncoat.

Lukashenko decided to take no chances. Elections are always a dangerous time, and you need people you can rely on. So he fired his “pro-market reformist” prime minister and government, and replaced them with Belarussian siloviki, security-services loyalists who wouldn’t flinch if they needed to get rough. But it wasn’t Western “democracy” that Lukashenko feared most. In 2020, his paranoia was mostly focused on the Russia threat.

In late June, just weeks before the election, he arrested his biggest election threat— the Kremlin-backed candidate, Babariko — and publicly accused Russia of “election meddling”. Soon afterwards, Lukashenko started rounding up all the other opposition candidates to make sure they couldn’t challenge him in August either, including blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, whose wife, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, was allowed to run in his place (apparently Lukashenko, an old-school macho boss, thought running against Tikhanovksy’s nobody wife would be a hoot, giving him an easy election victory while keeping the Nato dogs at bay).

As things were coming to a climax, Lukashenko was developing nicely into a pro-Western transformation-of-character hero. A month before the election, the New York Times was running articles about Lukashenko’s heroic turn against Russia.

Then came the scandal that would later be known as Wagnergate.

I won’t get too deep into the weeds of Wagnergate, so here’s a quick summary: in July 2020, just weeks before the election, Belarus authorities discovered that dozens of Russian mercenaries from the notorious Wagner Group had mysteriously gathered in a third-rate sanitarium outside Minsk. Lukashenko had them all rounded up, jailed and tortured — he assumed that this was the thing he feared most, the dreaded Russian coup plot come to finally get him.

In reality, the Wagner mercenaries had been lured to Minsk by a joint CIA-Ukrainian military intelligence operation to kidnap and put on trial suspected Russian war criminals from the battles in the Donbas in 2014-15. The Ukrainians and their CIA advisors set a trap, promising the Russian mercenaries work in Venezuela, which they’d reach using a chartered jet from Minsk to Istanbul to Caracas. According to the original plan, once the chartered jet full of Russian mercenaries flew out of Belarus airspace and over Ukrainian airspace, Ukraine air force fighters would intercept it, force it to land in Ukraine, and put them all on public trial, scoring propaganda points and exposing Russian crimes. (Not to mention provoking Russia, a major goal of the time.)

But the CIA-Ukraine plan fell apart when already-jittery Belorussian authorities got wind that a bunch of shady Russian mercs, 33 in all, had mysteriously sneaked into Belarus for reasons the Belorussian KGB could only fathom, and assumed the worst. (Over the next year and a half, Wagnergate morphed into a major Ukrainian political scandal in its own right — President Zelensky claimed he was left in the dark about the original plan, and he accused those who cooked up the whole plan, mainly rivals within Ukraine’s military-intelligence structures, of using the Wagner conspiracy to plot a coup against Zelensky himself. Like I said, too much to get into here, just know that the plot Lukashenko thwarted had legs of its own in Kyiv, stretching to Langley, and we’ll probably never know the full truth…)

Russia, of course, denied that the arrested Wagner mercenaries were part of a coup plot — in fact Russia had no idea what was going on at all. At first, Lukashenko didn’t believe the Kremlin. He had good reason to be suspicious. Midsummer 2020, when the Wagnergate scandal broke, was the low point in Belarus-Russia relations. As Russia tried to get to the bottom of the Wagnergate plot and demanded answers from Belarus, Lukashenko publicly accused Russia of “lying” and sent Belorussian troops to the border with Russia, fearing an all-out invasion.

But then over the early weeks of August, everything quickly broke and flipped the other way. First, the Belorussian elections took place and once again Luk awarded himself 80% of the vote. That sparked massive anti-Lukashenko demonstrations that couldn’t be bottled up as they had been in 2015 and 2010. As the protests spread and the westerners he thought were his new friends quickly started to abandon him, Lukashenko’s intelligence officers discovered, probably via torture, that the Wagner Group mercenaries had not been sent to Minsk to overthrow him. Instead they were marks in a covert CIA-Ukraine operation.

Between western-backed democracy activists on the streets calling for Luk’s overthrow, and a CIA-led operation that brought 33 Russian mercenaries into Minsk, the Lukashenko very quickly reassessed where the real threat to his rule lay, and how cornered he really was after giving the finger to Putin over the previous couple of years.

At first, it seems Washington was caught off guard by the sheer scale of the anti-Lukashenko protests. Many of the apparatchiks in DC were still too invested in their strategy of peeling Lukashenko away from Russia. This confusion was captured in a CNN article three days into the protests headlined, “Major US diplomatic push to counter Russia may be in jeopardy amid Belarus unrest”. The split among Washington foreign policy elites was aired by two leading DC think-tanks — the Atlantic Council, whose deputy director Melinda Haring told CNN that Pompeo should continue with the diplomatic rapprochement: versus the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) called that strategy “dead.” 

The protests were too large and too sustained  and Lukashenko’s crackdown was too brutal — and it was all headlined too often in the western media — to continue trying the realpolitik strategy pursued by Pompeo and backed by the Atlantic Council. As the protests grew in size and strength, the EU and US hit Belarus with sanctions and unified behind the regime-change protest movement. Whereas Russia opposed the overthrow of Lukashenko, but stayed on the sidelines, waiting for Luk to get desperate enough to come begging Putin for help.

Five days into the protests, Lukashenko freed the Wagner mercenaries and said they’d all been deceived by NATO and Ukraine. His rule looked shaky; the Belorussian public, usually passive, was not standing down. The protests were growing in numbers, no matter what the authorities tried doing. For a while in the early autumn of 2020, the smart money was on Lukashenko going the way of Yanukovych…or Ceaucescu. And Putin didn’t rush to Lukashenko’s aid right away. He waited for Lukashenko to reach maximum desperation to cut the best deal possible for the Kremlin.

Finally, Lukashenko broke. He had no choice: as more sectors of the country abandoned his regime, he knew he could not survive, quite literally survive, without Russian help. But this time, for Putin, there would be no more games, no more fucking around. The days of Lukashenko yammering about Belarussian sovereignty and playing NATO off against Russia were over. A month into the protests, Lukashenko flew to Russia to publicly supplicate.

(Top) Lukashenko in 2019 wagging his sovereignty-finger at Putin for the cameras, and for his NATO friends;
(Bottom) Lukashenko in September 2020 sweating bullets as he signs over the family business to Putin in exchange for protection.


Eventually, as the protests continued into September and October 2020, Putin offered Lukashenko more and more support to keep his regime in power — everything from intelligence and policing support to massive loans. The price for Lukashenko surviving has been the end of Belarus’s sovereignty as he knew it for 26 years: no more playing NATO off against Russia, no more dithering about Russian airbases, no more jailing Russian oligarchs. Instead, Lukashenko had to agree to pro quo the biggest favor of all, one that was unthinkable all those years past: letting Russia use Belarus as a doormat into Ukraine.

“Vova, babe, did I say you can’t have an airbase? What I meant was, you can have the whole country!”


As we’ve discussed in RWN, another major political shift happened in the fall of 2020, just as Lukashenko was at Putin’s feet: Ukraine’s president Zelensky, the one-time “peace with Russia” candidate,” made a giant u-turn and was now going all-in with Ukraine’s nationalist hawks and the NATO crowd for maximum confrontation with Russia. Zelensky’s change was coordinated in Washington with people from the incoming Biden Administration and the neocons at the Atlantic Council.

So when 2021 came around, and Putin saw that the new Biden administration was determined to step up NATO integration with Ukraine and take a harder approach against Russia, Putin saw he had a rare opportunity to use Belarus however he wanted now that Lukashenko owed him his life. For Putin, this meant a rare chance to hit the heart of Ukraine from the Belarus border, just north of the prize target, Kyiv. It was an opportunity that wouldn’t last forever, maybe a year or a few years at most, given the ferocity of anti-Lukashenko protests and the mercurial nature of Lukashenko himself. If Putin waited, Lukashenko could fall, fortunes could change, Lukashenko could return to his sly old ways. Either take advantage of this moment where you can strike at Kyiv from Belarus, or lose it forever.

Bold isn’t always smart, as we know. Bold can be really really stupid. Don’t do bold, kids, would be my advice, but as they say in Russia, “He who doesn’t take risks doesn’t drink champagne.”

So thanks to the failure of Belarus’s western-backed regime-change movement in the summer-fall of 2020, Putin finally had a window of opportunity to do something really stupid: Launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine centered on subduing Kyiv and forcing into power a friendlier more amenable regime. It didn’t work, but if Ukraine’s leaders are to be believed today, Russia is on the verge of launching another invasion from Belarus any day now.

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Posted: January 23rd, 2023

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

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.


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

I got an email earlier today from a journalist asking me if I saw allegations swirling around social media calling me a “serial rapist” and “child rapist” and worse. Since this smear campaign has jumped like a wind-whipped fire from troll networks to the mainstream digital media world; and because some people genuinely confused or concerned by the allegations want to know my response — I’ve decided to post my email reply. (Also note I plan to update this piece with more material…) 

* * *

The eXile was satirical, and most of the people using my own satire to smear me are being deliberately misleading or obtuse. We were always described as satirical (I wrote a short post on this awhile back when some people were asking about the smears, listing various sources who also described us as satire—The Nation, Bill Moyers, Committee To Protect Journalists, Guardian, and so on). It’s also there in The eXile book: in my first chapter I interview one of many fake invented characters (“Johnny Chen”); I “quote” the US Embassy spokesman agreeing with me that Moscow’s expats should be incinerated and have their ashes fired off into space. The book cover is a stupid cartoon featuring penis-shaped onion domes (the original cover was supposed to be Yeltsin sitting on a toilet reading The eXile and looking depressed, but our publisher made us take the one on the book.) I was always very up front about our style — mixing satire with journalism with no regard to boundaries, something you’re not supposed to do.

This recasting of The eXile as something other than satirical began a few years ago with the alt-right, when white supremacists Jim Goad and Gavin McInnis had a weird obsession with trying to discredit my reporting, and Goad started running articles and tweets calling me a child rapist. [Goad, who was sent to prison for assaulting his girlfriend and breaking her skull, was unhappy with a piece I posted about him and McInnis. He spent the next few years trolling me, my employers and media colleagues, explaining to fellow white nationalist Brooks Bayne his goal was to “force” me “to wear the Rape Jacket”.] Then Breitbart ran a smear on my eXile-era work claiming it was not satirical and that I was an actual rapist, and therefore my Koch reporting should not be trusted. And from there that smear was picked up by anyone my journalism and politics upset— libertarians when I went after the Koch brothers’ networks, neocons in response to my criticisms of US policy towards Russia. And, well, here we are.

The eXile was produced in a very different world and context, Boris Yeltsin’s Russia of the 1990s, when virtuous neoliberals oversaw and ran propaganda cover for one of the most horrific and disastrous experiments on a country in modern times. Millions of Russians went to their graves early in the 1990s; it was the complete degradation of a people and region. We covered the story in the opposite way that everyone else around us did — satirical rather than “objective”. The Clinton missionaries propagandizing for Yeltsin were publicly virtuous while lying and looting and laying waste. So we were publicly grotesque immoral idiots, but we got the story right. The dominant metaphors for the American colonial project in Russia were rape and prostitution; we took those metaphors as fundamental to what was really going on, and tried to make our readers as uncomfortable as possible. We approached this shocking appalling reality—with a shocking offensive satirical aesthetic. I can understand if people today, with no gut concept of what the Yeltsin-Russia context was like—and it was totally alien to America-2017, a different world —if they think it was wrong for us to approach it satirically; or if they think our satire was bad and reprehensible and immoral as satire (some of it makes me utterly cringe today). But come on, you can’t take over my mind and tell me what I was thinking and intending as a writer at that time.

I haven’t directly responded to the smears and the false recasting of our eXile-era work until now, because the whole point of a smear is to get you to respond. And once you respond and deny it, that becomes a story unto itself. But now I can see it’s blown way out of proportion, it’s moved beyond the world of trolls, as happens so often on Twitter. So let me state clearly: It is not true that that The eXile work was not satirical. It is not true that I was an actual “serial rapist” or rapist or harasser or assaulter of any sort. I never raped, harassed, assaulted anyone, and it sickens me that I’m dragged into having to make this sort of denial. All of those “accusations” come from me. They come from my own satirical work. I’m the self-accuser, the only accuser— as absurd and meta as this is.

To answer your other question, I would have to see exactly what passages Matt attributes to me, though it’s entirely possible he’s referring to passages I wrote. In our more offensive satire I often put my name to it for added effect. It was more shocking and disturbing that way, and I wasn’t too interested in non-fiction journalism in the earlier eXile years especially. Matt generally did not put his name on the really offensive satire that we did— he was doing journalism from the start.

One final thing about being attacked for satire: The Russian government shut down The eXile 9 years ago. They labeled our satirical material “extremism” and I was even accused of “extremism” by the head of Putin’s youth group Nashi. You can read about it here:

However terrible the Kremlin’s attacks on The eXile were, one thing I’ll give the Putin regime is that at least they were honest about satire. If they hated it, they shut it down. Satire is not a legal defense in Russia, and the Kremlin didn’t care about satire as a cultural or aesthetic defense. Here in the US, satire is a defense, legally and culturally. Which perhaps is why this American way of smearing me, by defining my aesthetic and my thinking 15-20 years ago for me, is perhaps more frightening than the Kremlin attack. Because at least the Russians were up front about attacking our satire because they hated it. So here, people who dislike my politics and my journalism try to discredit me by trying to deny my older eXile work was intended as aggressive shocking satire, and try to discredit me by smearing me as a “serial rapist” rather than engaging my journalism. It’s infuriating and deeply disturbing, and it’s succeeded in whipping up online social media mobs harassing me, my friends, my colleagues, my employers, and even family. There are some people who are genuinely unaware of the historical, cultural & political context that The eXile’s satire arose from, and as a result they’ve been shocked and appalled assuming (or being misled to assume by others) that it wasn’t satire but straight non-fiction truth, and I’m truly sorry about that. Perhaps it would require another book written from today’s world, from outside the Yeltsin-era context, to give a better sense. But most of the people who’ve been pushing this smear are malevolent cretins, and this proves for the umpteenth time that this world belongs to them.

* * *

The journalist then asked me to respond to a tweet by Casey Michel, a young neocon mentored by Michael Weiss.

Here is my response:

I didn’t write that small print, nor did Matt. If you’re honestly asking, perhaps our publisher put it it there for some merchandising reason, or perhaps it’s because in some of our more straight chapters, especially Matt’s, many powerful people the book names in corruption and criminal scandals are real people with real names. You’re allowed to smear yourself and your invented characters; you have to provide backup evidence when you name others like Berezovsky (who was very litigious) , Chubais, Shleifer, Hay. We did have to provide enormous amounts of backup evidence/material to our publisher’s lawyers on corruption and criminal allegations in our book against powerful figures who we named. You can smear yourself, so long as you don’t sue yourself or your publisher for letting you smear yourself. As I said, we did not keep a simple boundary between satire and journalism, and the aesthetic approach to everything was satirical, which is why the newspaper and book looked like they did. Our satire was not the sort of facile parody brand of satire that Americans tend to think of as a synonym for satire. We didn’t put up giant signposts like The Onion and Colbert, deliberately so. But it was satirical. If you’re seriously trying to find out if we were a satirical publication and our work was satirical, and you’re relying entirely on some small print in the front of the book and ignoring everything else, then there’s not much I can do here.

It’s funny that you’re citing Casey Michel, who’s been smearing leftists opposed to neocon policy in Russia as “Putin dupes” and “Putin’s fellow travelers” and worse for the past few years. We are on opposite sides of Russia policy, and he has an ugly public record of smearing his leftist opponents with McCarthyist attacks, rather than engaging their arguments. I’ll repeat this: I made these “allegations” as satire, about my alleged horrible character as satire, along with all sorts of self-smears meant to make me look like the most loathsome expat in Moscow. Where the bar was already extremely low. I wrote them as satire and I’m telling you they’re satire. And as I said, most others who followed us and wrote about us described our eXile work as satirical as well. Are you suggesting that I’m both credible and not-credible at the same time?— 100% credible when I satirically smear myself, 100% unreliable when I explain it? This is just surreal.

I’m sorry but I have to repeat this: “Johnny Chen” who I “interview” in the first pages of the book is an invented character, who wrote outrageous club reviews and raped his way through Moscow while working for USAID as an adviser (according to our invention). He was “replaced” later by an invented Lonely Planet Canadian liberal named Stuart Pratt, then a fratboy pig named Dan Higgins, then an arrogant oligarch’s son named Denis Salnikov, and so on. The small print at the front of the book is wrong. Which would be a mildly amusing sidenote, under other circumstances.


* * *

I’ll be adding to this post when I have time. There’s a lot more to say, both about the satirical context  and the very different worlds of horrible — Yeltsin’s Russia & Trump’s America — that inspired the satire, and inspired the social media mob party. I also want to show a more detailed timeline of how this smear developed, and who’s been pushing it. Nearly every person pushing has been  disingenuous in the most grotesque and ridiculous ways, as these mob movements tend to be.

Just an example — Koch employee Elizabeth Brown of Reason magazine had never said a bad word about me until I exposed her publication’s very non-satirical work promoting Holocaust deniers, Nazis and South Africa’s white-rule apartheid. Naturally, Brown’s response was to discover how outraged she was by my eXile writings, accusing me of being a rapist — in an several-thousand-word article she wrote defending Roosh V from online media mobs. Her defense of Roosh was headlined “How Maryland ‘Neomasculinity’ Blogger Roosh V Became an International ‘Pro-Rape’ Villain. A case study of collective catharsis through call-out culture and moral panic as meme.” In her long defense of Roosh, she smeared me and Taibbi as actual rapists and sexual harassers, with this flat-out lie at the heart of her argument:

“The men never claimed at the time that it was satire or fiction.”
Or take James Kirchick—just two days after smearing me pretending to be outraged over The eXile, he was publicly defending actual serial sexual harasser Leon Wieseltier, his fellow neocon warmonger, because god forbid someone should mischaracterize repeated sexual harassment offenses.

You get the point. I’ll have more later…

Update: Showing how little I paid attention to the small print in the front of the book — then or now, at least compared to every other sleuth swearing by this one page as “proof” we wrote pure non-satirical non-fiction factual facts — the name Johnny Chen (one of our fake personas) is listed as a contributor on the very same page that declares the book “non-fiction”. (h/t Yasha)

For ace McCarthyist sleuths like Casey Michel, this page is like the Bible of Damning eXile Truth — wonder how he could’ve possibly missed this?



Posted: October 27th, 2017

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:


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