Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 21, 2014

Kill the Messenger

Filed under: Counterpunch,crime,Film,journalism,nicaragua — louisproyect @ 5:47 pm

Given its Hollywood provenance, I expected very little from “Kill the Messenger”, a film starring Jeremy Renner as reporter Gary Webb, who after exposing the CIA’s role in facilitating Nicaraguan contra planeloads of cocaine into the USA was martyred by forces more powerful than the modest San Jose newspaper where he worked, particularly the CIA and the Washington Post, a “newspaper of record” that had a long history of covering up for the CIA no matter the reputation it earned through the Woodward-Bernstein reporting on Watergate.

Given Renner’s role as an action hero in Katherine Bigelow’s awful “The Hurt Locker” and more recently as a successor to Matt Damon in “The Bourne Legacy”, I fully expected “Kill the Messenger” to figuratively inject steroids into Gary Webb and turn him into a combination of an investigative reporter and superspy. To the contrary, the film is restrained in its presentation of Webb and the forces aligned against him. The real drama is not of the conventional car chase variety but those that take place in the conference room of the San Jose Mercury News as Webb fights to defend his integrity from hostile forces outside the paper and a management all too willing to bend under the pressure.

The film was of particular interest to me since I had spent three years on the board of Tecnica, a volunteer technical aid project for Sandinista Nicaragua, until it succumbed to the same enemies that conspired against Webb: a reactionary presidency abetted by a Democratic Party that shared its ultimate goal—to crush a revolution—while differing only on the rhetoric put forward to achieve that goal. In the late 1980s the Washington Post was all too willing to stump for the contras despite its liberal reputation as Noam Chomsky reported in “Necessary Illusions”:

In April 1986, as the campaign to provide military aid to the contras was heating up, one of the [La Prensa] owners, Jaime Chamorro, wrote an Op-Ed in the Washington Post calling for aid to “those Nicaraguans who are fighting for democracy” (the standard reference to the U.S. proxy forces). In the weeks preceding the summer congressional votes, “a host of articles by five different La Prensa staff members denounced the Sandinistas in major newspapers throughout the United States,” John Spicer Nichols observes, including a series of Op-Eds signed by La Prensa editors in the Washington Post as they traveled to the United States under the auspices of front organizations of the North contra-funding network.

In fact the reputation of Bob Woodward was inflated to begin with, as I pointed out in a Swans article in 2005:

In 1987, Woodward wrote Veil: the Secret Wars of the CIA 1981-1987, a book that had all the trappings of investigative journalism — especially the title. It was based on the career of William Casey, the CIA director who was a key figure in Reagan’s illegal wars. Although the book was filled with all sorts of lurid revelations (Casey thought Reagan was lazy, the King of Saudi Arabia was a drunk, etc.), it really didn’t get to the heart of why these wars took place and, more importantly, how to stop them.

The book generated some controversy that must have been a painful reminder of the Janet Cooke fiasco. An interview with the dying William Casey, who supposedly “confessed” all his contra-arms dealings to Woodward, was filled with so many inconsistencies and vagueness that the book was widely discredited. In addition, Woodward was accused of withholding important information just as he has done more recently. In Congressional hearings, Lt. Col. Oliver North testified that Casey was in on the diversion of funds from the beginning. If Woodward had Casey’s confession months before North testified, it would have been a major scoop for the Post had he come forward as well as a powerful blow against the illegal conspiracies being hatched during the Reagan presidency. But he held back in order to coincide with the publication date of his book.

Turning to the film itself, it benefited—as all good films do—from a strong screenplay written by Peter Landesman based on Webb’s 1999 “Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion”. Landesman was an investigative journalist before he became a screenwriter, including time spent in places like Pakistan and covering matters such the illegal arms trade and sex traffickers. So he knows the territory and brings a verisimilitude to the story that might have been absent if developed by an industry hack straight out of film school. Landesman’s co-writer Nick Schou also has a lot of credibility as the author of “Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack Cocaine Epidemic Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb”, a Nation Magazine book. Schou is the managing editor of Orange County Weekly, a sister publication of the Village Voice that has somehow retained some of the integrity that was present in this alternative weekly’s roots. So, all in all, the creative team behind “Kill the Messenger” are our kinds of people.

The film begins with Webb reporting on the abuse of drug dealer property seizure by California cops, something I am intimately familiar with since my cousin Joel lost the home in upstate New York that he built with his own hands after a police raid on his property uncovered about a hundred marijuana plants he’d grown for his personal use.

On the strength of his reporting, Webb is approached by the girlfriend of a Nicaraguan émigré drug-dealer who wants his help in exposing courtroom irregularities, including the role of his accuser, a big-time dealer who is a DEA informant notwithstanding the millions of dollars he made and continues to make in the drug trade.

With a grand jury transcript that accidentally came into her hands, Webb begins a search in Los Angeles and then proceeds to Nicaragua to uncover the conspiracy that allowed planeloads of cocaine to be exported to the USA in order to raise funds for the contra killing machine.

His articles on the “Dark Alliance” make him a celebrity overnight, earning him appearances on “Nightline” and profiles in major newspapers everywhere. His reporting also sends shockwaves through the Black community suffering from an epidemic of crack cocaine. Meetings are held in South Central LA and elsewhere demanding a satisfactory explanation from the CIA. Six months after the CIA director John Deutsch speaks to an angry audience at one of these meetings, Bill Clinton fires him.

This is the real drama of “Kill the Messenger”, recreating these events without the slightest degree of exaggeration. It is a film that you can recommend to friends and relatives for Chomskyian type insights while they are being entertained. I use the word entertained in the most conventional sense since this is a brilliantly acted, directed and plotted story. The direction is of some significance since Michael Cuesta most important work prior to the film was the HBO series Showtime that is a nasty piece of Islamophobia from what I have heard.

The third act of the film consists of a counterattack by the CIA and the Washington Post that ultimately destroys Webb’s reputation, his career and his life.

Throughout the entire film, Jeremy Renner turns in a bravura performance as a fairly conventional man put into utterly unconventional circumstances. Right now he is my pick for best actor, to go along with my pick of “Kill the Messenger” for best film of 2014.

In 1999, the same year that Webb’s “Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion” came out, Jeff St. Clair and Alexander Cockburn published “Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs and the Press”, a book about Gary Webb’s crusade to tell the truth.

When Webb killed himself in 2004 after finally being worn down by the smears and the loss of income, Jeff and Alex wrote a memorial that read in part:

Trashed by the CIA’s Claque

Gary Webb: a Great Reporter

by ALEXANDER COCKBURN And JEFFREY ST. CLAIR, DECEMBER 13, 2004

News came over the weekend that Gary Webb had died Friday from a gunshot wound to the head in his home in Sacramento, California. It appears to have been self inflicted. The news saddens us, and rekindles our anger at the fouls libels he endured at the hands of his colleagues.

Webb was a great reporter whose best-known work exposed the CIA’S complicity in the import of cocaine into the United States in the 1980s, during the US onslaught on the Sandinista government of Nicaragua. His devastating series Dark Alliance, published in the San Jose Mercury News in 1996, provoked a series of wild attacks in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Washington Post, purporting to demolish Webb and exonerate the Agency.

The attacks were without merit, but the San Jose Mercury News buckled under the pressure and undercut its own reporter with a groveling and entirely unmerited retraction by its publisher. It was a very dark day in the history of American journalism. We described the entire saga in detail in our book Whiteout: the CIA, Drugs and the Press which sets the story in the larger context of the Agency’s complicity in drug smuggling since its founding.

Their article also reprises something that Webb wrote for CounterPunch in 2001. If there’s anything that makes me prouder than contributing to the same magazine that Gary Webb wrote for, I can’t think of it.

March 21, 2001 Silencing the Messenger Censoring NarcoNews by Gary Webb CounterPunch

Not long after I wrote a series for the San Jose Mercury News about a drug ring that had flooded South Central Los Angeles with cheap cocaine at the beginning of the crack explosion there, a strange thing happened to me. I was silenced.

This, believe it or not, came as something of a surprise to me. For 17 years I had been writing newspaper stories about grafters, crooked bankers, corrupt politicians and killers — and winning armloads of journalism awards for it. Some of my stories had convened grand juries and sent important people to well-deserved jail cells. Others ended up on 20/20, and later became a best-selling book (not written by me, unfortunately.) I started doing television news shows, speaking to college journalism classes and professional seminars. I had major papers bidding against each other to hire me.

So when I happened across information implicating an arm of the Central Intelligence Agency in the cocaine trade, I had no qualms about jumping onto it with both feet. What did I have to worry about? I was a newspaperman for a big city, take-no-prisoners newspaper. I had the First Amendment, a law firm, and a multi-million dollar corporation watching my back.

Besides, this story was a fucking outrage. Right-wing Latin American drug dealers were helping finance a CIA-run covert war in Nicaragua by selling tons of cocaine to the Crips and Bloods in LA, who were turning it into crack and spreading it through black neighborhoods nationwide. And all the available evidence pointed to the sickening conclusion that elements of the US government had known of it and had either tacitly encouraged it or, at a minimum, done absolutely nothing to stop it.

And that’s when this strange thing happened. The national news media, instead of using its brute strength to force the truth from our government, decided that its time would be better spent investigating me and my reporting. They kicked me around pretty good, I have to admit. (At one point, I was even accused of making movie deals with a crack dealer I’d written about. The DEA raided my film agent’s office looking for any scrap of paper to back up this lie and appeared disappointed when they came up emptyhanded.)

To this day, no one has ever been able to show me a single error of fact in anything I’ve written about this drug ring, which includes a 600-page book about the whole tragic mess. Indeed, most of what has come out since shows that my newspaper stories grossly underestimated the extent of our government’s knowledge, an error to which I readily confess. But, in the end, the facts didn’t really matter. What mattered was making the damned thing go away, shutting people up, and making anyone who demanded the truth appear to be a wacky conspiracy theorist. And it worked.

September 19, 2014

How Stieg Larsson Exposed the Swedish Far Right

Filed under: Fascism,journalism,literature,popular culture,Sweden — louisproyect @ 1:04 pm
Kicking the Hornets’ Nest

How Stieg Larsson Exposed the Swedish Far Right

by LOUIS PROYECT

For the average person the early death of Stieg Larsson must have come as a disappointment since that meant that the fourth Dragon Tattoo novel would remain uncompleted, the last in a series that were perfect reading on the bus or subway going to work. I understood how they might feel since I once missed my stop while reading the account of the petite but potent Lisbeth Salander beating up a 300-pound biker and stealing his Harley-Davidson.

But after reading Jan-Erik Pettersson’s “Stieg Larsson: the real story of the man who played with fire”, I felt a keener loss, that of a man who I never met but now miss as a comrade in the fight against a decaying capitalist system. I was always aware that Karl Stig-Erland “Stieg” Larsson, who died at the age of 50 from a heart attack on November 9, 2005, was a member of the Trotskyist movement–as was I–but never knew much about what he did in between the time he left the movement and began writing the novels that made him famous. I was under the impression that he made his living as a journalist but that would be like saying that John Reed did so as well. Like so many journalists with integrity over the last 100 years, Stieg Larsson aimed his words like a Molotov cocktail at the forces of capitalist reaction. If anything, the exploits of Mikael Blomkvist, the journalist hero of his novels, pale in comparison to the life that the author led.

I picked up Pettersson’s book (used copies sell for a penny on Amazon.com!) primarily to get a handle on how Sweden moved away from the welfare state in the 80s and 90s and on how those changes impacted the Marxist detective novel writers I wrote about inCounterPunch recently. While the book provided valuable information that allowed me to put someone like Henning Mankell, the creator of the Wallender novels, into context, the story of Stieg Larsson began to captivate me, so much so that I decided to write this article as a way of paying homage to this extraordinary human being. The facts about Larsson’s life that follow come from Pettersson’s book; the analysis you can blame on me as always.

read full article

August 28, 2014

Vandana Shiva answers Michael Specter

Filed under: Ecology,farming,india,journalism — louisproyect @ 5:46 pm

Screen shot 2014-08-28 at 1.42.49 PM

Read article

August 9, 2014

Robert Parry, up to his old tricks

Filed under: conspiracism,journalism,Ukraine — louisproyect @ 1:52 pm

Robert Parry

For people who have been following the MH17 shoot-down over Donetsk, you are probably aware that ever since it occurred Russian media and its friends in the West have worked overtime to put the blame on Kyiv.

Some of the reports have bordered on the comical. For example, in one of his first dispatches, Robert Parry told his readers:

According to a source briefed on the tentative findings, the soldiers manning the battery appeared to be wearing Ukrainian uniforms and may have been drinking, since what looked like beer bottles were scattered around the site. But the source added that the information was still incomplete and the analysts did not rule out the possibility of rebel responsibility.

When I read this, my eyes popped out of my head like a Warner Brothers cartoon character and then wrote this:

No, this is Parry and not Onion.com. I love the bit about beer bottles scattered around the site. You’d think that he would have mentioned vodka in order to make it sound more plausible. The last time I read anything this ridiculous was when Mint Press reported on rebels playing around with sarin gas containers causing an accident that cost the lives of hundreds in East Ghouta. Those Ukrainian troops and Syrian rebels, just like Bluto and Otter getting into trouble in “Animal House”.

Parry is still up to his old tricks. This fellow whose career began at Newsweek, where he apparently learned how to con the unsuspecting reader, now tells us that Ukrainian jets that mistook the MH17 for Putin’s returning to Russia brought down the Malaysian jet:

But the U.S. analysts dismissed those original suspicions because they could find no evidence that such a missile battery had been supplied by the Russians or was in the possession of the rebels, prompting a shift in thinking toward a scenario in which Ukrainian hardliners working with elements of the air force may have tried to ambush Putin’s plane but instead hit the Malaysian airliner, said the source speaking on condition of anonymity.

Putin flies in a plane with similar red, white and blue markings as the Malaysian airliner and was known to be on his way home after a six-day visit to South America. But his plane took a different route and landed safely in Moscow.

This is now the new talking point of the pro-Kremlin left apparently. Today the WSWS.org website cites Parry and crows that the new findings about the MH17 jet and Putin’s converging should thwart attempts to “escalate the confrontation with Russia and demonize Putin.”

You would think that these people who have relied so heavily on RT.com for their “investigative reporting” would have bothered to check with the mother ship before writing such a reeking pile of diarrhea. This is what the most ardent defender of Kremlin policies has to say on all this in an article titled “Reports that Putin flew similar route as MH17, presidential airport says ‘hasn’t overflown Ukraine for long time’”:

As a source told Gazeta.ru online news portal, Putin’s plane does take off from Vnukovo-3 [the terminal that accepts business jets], but the president does not fly over the conflict-gripped neighboring country.

“Putin has only one jet – Board One, he does not fly other planes. This plane always takes off from Vnukovo-3, but the presidential plane have not been flying over Ukraine for a while,” the source at Vnukovo-3 terminal said. [emphasis added]

President Putin was on his way from Brazil, where he attended the BRICS summit, to Moscow.

Just to make sure we understand this clearly, Vnukovo is Moscow’s oldest airport serving both military and civilian traffic. It is highly unlikely that a “source” at terminal 3, where Putin’s jet taxis, is likely to stray from Kremlin diktats.

Furthermore, the RT.com article cites a source that puts the point of intersection not over Ukraine, which was never possible to begin with, but over Poland: “I can say that Putin’s plane and the Malaysian Boeing intersected at the same point and the same echelon. That was close to Warsaw on 330-m echelon at the height of 10,100 meters.” [emphasis added]

That’s Russian reporting, not the Kyiv Post or the Unrepentant Marxist. It took me 15 minutes to debunk this bullshit story. You would think that websites like Parry’s Consortiumnews.net or WSWS.org would want to make sure that they would try to maintain their integrity. Alas, a decision to forsake journalistic integrity and pump out dog-eared propaganda was made a long, long time ago for these people.

July 20, 2014

Robert Parry’s folly

Filed under: journalism,Russia,Syria,Ukraine — louisproyect @ 5:31 pm

Robert Parry

Robert Parry is part of a cadre of investigative journalists who have put themselves at the disposal of the Kremlin on the matters of Syria and/or Ukraine. Like Walter Duranty who justified Stalin’s policies to NY Times readers in the 1930s, we see Parry, Seymour Hersh and Robert Fisk using journalistic tricks of the trade to make Putin seem like an innocent victim of a worldwide conspiracy involving the CIA, NATO, George Soros-type NGO’s, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, NY Times op-ed writers, and other miscreants bent on… Bent on what exactly? In the 1930s Stalin was defending state-owned property for the same reason that Jimmy Hoffa fought against Bobby Kennedy’s investigation of racketeering in the Teamster’s Union. The union was Hoffa’s source of wealth and power. As such it was in his in own class interests to keep the union strong.

But what exactly does that have to do with Putin? Russia is the third largest recipient of Foreign Direct Investment in the world after the USA and China so such an alleged conspiracy would in effect be breaking down an open door. Just three days ago RT.com reported: “Current Rosneft and Exxon projects unaffected by sanctions – Rosneft CEO”. The article points out:

Rosneft has strong links with both the US and UK oil industry.

Rosneft has even made moves into the Western hemisphere, and owns about 30 percent of an ExxonMobil oil field in the Canadian province of Alberta.

Rosneft accounts for 40 percent of Russian oil output, and also has strong partnerships with Norway’s Statoil and Italy’s Eni.

Rosneft is an oil company. Gazprom, a gas exporter as its name would imply, has the same kind of mutually beneficial relationships with their Western counterparts as the Christian Science Monitor reported on May 2nd:

Although the European Union has imposed its own tough sanctions on 48 Russian individuals, Gazprom is arguably where daylight exists between the Obama administration and the EU on the issue of penalizing Moscow for its actions in Ukraine.

The numbers make it clear why. Russia is the EU’s third-biggest trading partner, after the U.S. and China; in 2012, bilateral EU-Russian trade amounted to almost $370 billion. The same year, U.S. trade with Russia amounted to just $26 billion.

For all of the rhetoric about the inevitable clash between Russia and the West, there is no evidence that it has anything to do with economics. I defy anybody to find an article prior to the crisis in the Ukraine that refers to Russia as inimical to capitalist interests. All you need to do is look at one of those advertising supplements in the NY Times that appears every year or so to confirm this. You know the kind I am talking about, the one that has articles to the effect of Russia being an open door for investors.

It is only when some unfortunate group of peoples finds itself on the wrong side of Russian foreign policy that the rhetoric about a new Cold War bubbles up once again. For Parry and company, there are never any legitimate grievances in a place like Syria or Ukraine. What you get is an “outside agitator” theory in which the natives become restless after a phone call from a Virginia Nuland or a Saudi prince. Russia is entitled to support any military action to put down these fifth columns until law and order is restored. In many ways, the excuses made for the iron fist are the same as Israel’s in Gaza. It is no surprise that both Bashar al-Assad and more recently Abdel Fattah el-Sisi align themselves with Russia over Islamic “extremism” and vice versa.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has made a startling intervention in Egypt’s political turmoil by backing its defence minister for the presidency, before an election has even been declared.

Whether the minister, the newly promoted Field Marshal Abdulfattah el-Sisi, will stand for president in elections scheduled for later this year is the biggest talking point in Egyptian politics, with elements of a personality cult already forming around him.

His aides have consistently denied reports that he has already made a decision, but Mr Putin chose to ignore that while welcoming him on a visit to Moscow.

“I know that you have made a decision to run for president,” Mr Putin said. “That’s a very responsible decision: to undertake such a mission for the fate of the Egyptian people. On my own part, and on behalf of the Russian people, I wish you success.”

Turning now to Parry’s article, “Airline Horror Spurs New Rush to Judgment”, you are struck by his use of the trump card—the unnamed Spooks who really know what is going on. In other words, we are up against the same tried and true method of Seymour Hersh.

Regarding the shoot-down of the Malaysian jetliner on Thursday, I’m told that some CIA analysts cite U.S. satellite reconnaissance photos suggesting that the anti-aircraft missile that brought down Flight 17 was fired by Ukrainian troops from a government battery, not by ethnic Russian rebels who have been resisting the regime in Kiev since elected President Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown on Feb. 22.

Oh really? Well, I am told that some CIA analysts view Vladimir Putin as the recipient of Joseph Stalin’s brain in experimental surgery conducted by a Martian who landed on earth in 1990 determined to save the universe from George Soros and Samantha Power. Who told me that? Sorry, I must keep my sources confidential. Okay, just this one time I will divulge my source. It is Herman Goldstein, my neighbor who read it in an investor’s newsletter out of Corpus Christi, Texas. Mums the word.

Parry continues:

According to a source briefed on the tentative findings, the soldiers manning the battery appeared to be wearing Ukrainian uniforms and may have been drinking, since what looked like beer bottles were scattered around the site. But the source added that the information was still incomplete and the analysts did not rule out the possibility of rebel responsibility.

No, this is Parry and not Onion.com. I love the bit about beer bottles scattered around the site. You’d think that he would have mentioned vodka in order to make it sound more plausible. The last time I read anything this ridiculous was when Mint Press reported on rebels playing around with sarin gas containers causing an accident that cost the lives of hundreds in East Ghouta. Those Ukrainian troops and Syrian rebels, just like Bluto and Otter getting into trouble in “Animal House”.

Much of Parry’s finely honed investigative reporting talents, burnished at Newsweek no less, are turned to casting doubt on the possibility that the separatists had a ground to air missile capable of reaching 33,000 feet.

I wonder if Parry needs some brushing up on Google since a brief search would reveal that such missiles not only exist but have been used previously. Last Monday a missile brought down a Ukrainian military transport, the AN-26, from a height of 21,000 feet—far beyond the reach of a MANPAD. Well, who knows? I suppose if Parry had learned of this, he would have blamed drunken Ukrainians as well.

To drive his point home, Parry refers to the sarin gas incident that supposedly was a false flag operation intended to justify an American “regime change” invasion of Syria that would have put the FSA in power. Yes, I know. It sounds ridiculous at this point with so many articles referring to the White House’s preference for Bashar al-Assad over any and every rebel but let’s follow Parry’s tortured logic since it is clear that so many of our “anti-imperialists” will take him at his word.

Despite the war hysteria then gripping Official Washington, President Obama rejected war at the last moment and – with the help of Russian President Putin – was able to negotiate a resolution of the crisis in which Assad surrendered Syria’s chemical weapons while still denying a hand in the sarin gas attack.

Actually, there was no “war hysteria” in Washington, or more specifically in the White House. An astute analysis of Obama’s designs appeared in the NY Times on October 22nd 2013, written when the alarums over a looming war with Syria were at their loudest. It stated “from the beginning, Mr. Obama made it clear to his aides that he did not envision an American military intervention, even as public calls mounted that year for a no-fly zone to protect Syrian civilians from bombings.” The article stressed the role of White House Chief of Staff Dennis McDonough, who had frequently clashed with the hawkish Samantha Power. In contrast to Power and others with a more overtly “humanitarian intervention” perspective, McDonough “who had perhaps the closest ties to Mr. Obama, remained skeptical. He questioned how much it was in America’s interest to tamp down the violence in Syria.”

Well, no matter. The NY Times is the boss’s newspaper and we should never believe whatever it prints. We are far better off with someone like Robert Parry who spent a decade writing for Newsweek. Wheeling out his heavy artillery, he refers his readers to an unimpeachable source:

In watching Obama’s address, I was struck by how casually he lied. He knew better than almost anyone that some of his senior intelligence analysts were among those doubting the Syrian government’s guilt. Yet, he suggested that anyone who wasn’t onboard the propaganda train was crazy.

Since then, investigative journalist Seymour Hersh has revealed other evidence indicating that the sarin attack may indeed have been a rebel provocation meant to push Obama over the “red line” that he had drawn about not tolerating chemical weapons use.

Well, Seymour Hersh revealed no “evidence” at all. Evidence would be like something presented to a jury in a murder trial, like a bloody knife or tampered brakes on a car. All Hersh did was assure his readers that Bashar al-Assad was pure as the driven snow because someone who worked for the CIA told him so.

For those who want to read genuine investigative reporting instead of this “unnamed sources” crapola from Parry or Hersh, I refer you to Elliot Higgins, aka Brown Moses, who as far as I know, never worked for Newsweek.

Sy Hersh’s Chemical Misfire

Two munitions were linked to the Aug. 21 sarin attack: a Soviet M14 140 mm artillery rocket with a sarin warhead and a previously unknown munition that appeared at multiple locations. Since the sarin attack, eight separate examples of the previously unknown type of munition have been filmed and photographed in the Jobar, Zamalka, and Ein Tarma suburbs of Damascus, an example of which is shown below.

    • The munitions are used by Syrian government forces and are known as “Volcanoes.”
    • The term “Volcano” is also used for a smaller improvised rocket used by pro-government forces.
    • The type of Volcano used in the Aug. 21 attack comes in three known types: A chemical and explosive type are both launched from a two-barrel launcher, while a large explosive type is launched from a single-barrel launcher.
    • The explosive type has been used since November 2012, while the first known instance of the chemical type being used was June 2013.

I suspect it is exactly this kind of analysis—based on evidence—rather than the specious use of unnamed sources that will ultimately reveal who is responsible for the downing of the Malaysian jet.

April 9, 2014

Motivating a subscription to Counterpunch and Critical Muslim

Filed under: Counterpunch,Critical Muslim,journalism — louisproyect @ 4:04 pm

Just by coincidence I received copies of two print publications by snail mail yesterday that include my articles. It occurred to me that it would be a good time to motivate taking out a subscription to them for my sake, the sake of other contributors, and your own reading pleasure. (Motivate—that’s a word I haven’t used in this way since my days in the Socialist Workers Party! Old habits die hard.)

The first is Counterpunch magazine, Volume 21 Number 3. My article is titled “A Hero for Our Time? The Return of Karl Marx”. The magazine has a nifty picture of Karl Marx in a Superman type uniform.

Subscription information is at http://store.counterpunch.org/product-category/subscriptions/. A year’s subscription is $55 for the print edition and $35 for the digital.

My article starts out with an examination of the renewed interest in Karl Marx following the 2007 financial crisis and proceeds to a discussion of Marx’s political legacy, something that would not come under the purview of those Financial Times and Bloomberg News contributors whistling past Lehman Brothers’ gravesite.

Here’s an excerpt:

Like the nuclear reactor that withstood a meltdown in China Syndrome, the American economy supposedly is in recovery. Of course there are those unfortunates who cannot seem to find a job, especially in the Black community, but the stock market is at an all-time high and the housing market—according to the experts—is doing quite well. GM is showing a handsome profit even if it faces criminal charges for failing to inform owners of their cars that a faulty ignition might lead to fatal accidents.

More to the point, the NY Times of March 12, 2014 reported on economist Thomas Piketty’s new book Capital in the Twenty-First Century that would be of little assurance to anybody except the wealthy. Piketty deploys a mountain of data to prove that economic inequality will not only persist into the future but that the system itself is the primary generator, not “vampire squids” as Matt Taibbi put it. It is the very nature of the system that leads to a concentration of wealth at the top and misery at the bottom. Timesman Eduardo Porter, not a critic of capitalism after the fashion of Nouriel Roubini, puts it bluntly:

The deep concern about the distribution of income and wealth that inspired 19th-century thinkers like David Ricardo and Karl Marx was attributed to a misunderstanding of the dynamics of growth leavened with the natural pessimism that would come from living in a time of enormous wealth and deep squalor, an era that gave us “Les Misérables” and “Oliver Twist.”

Today, of course, it’s far from obvious that the 19th-century pessimists were entirely wrong.

Glancing back across history from the present-day United States, it looks as if Kuznets’s curve swerved way off target. Wages have been depressed for years. Profits account for the largest share of national income since the 1930s. The richest 10 percent of Americans take a larger slice of the economic pie than they did in 1913, at the peak of the Gilded Age.

By subscribing to Counterpunch magazine, you will be helping to sustain the website, a source of many useful articles including my own contrarian film reviews. Speaking of contrarian film reviews, in the current issue of the magazine you can read Kim Nicolini’s take on Matthew McConaughey. Kim is my film co-editor at the magazine and we frequently disagree—that’s what makes life interesting after all. But on McConaughey, I couldn’t agree more with Kim. Her final paragraphs:

Some might critique these roles as crude stereotypes. But stereotypes are derived from reality. McConaughey’s roles fit into a cultural tradition that depicts the decadence and debauchery of the South through baroque exaggeration, myth, and dark humor. Sure, not everyone living in the CSA is a pervert, racist homophobe. McConaughey shows the complexity of being a white man in the South by playing his roles to the edge of absurdity then turning them into images of tragic sincerity, not unlike the music of Lynyrd Skynyrd which plays during the violent drunken brawl in Dazed and Confused.

When McConaughey won his Oscar and thanked God and family for his success, he got a lot of shit from the liberal media. But nothing in the roles McConaughey has played over the last three years propagates a Christian agenda. In fact, they turn the Christian agenda on its head. Discriminating against him for his religious choices is the same as discriminating against anyone else for their choices. Discrimination is discrimination.

The consistency of his roles has made his body a landscape of Southern culture and an embodiment of the Southern literary canon. As far as I’m concerned, that is “Alright, alright, alright.”

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I also received number 10 of Critical Muslim, a journal co-edited by Robin Yassin-Kassab and Ziauddin Sardar. I first motivated a subscription to Critical Muslim in January 2014 and invite you to review that post. Instructions on how to buy single issues and subscriptions are here http://criticalmuslim.com/subscribe. Of course, I urge you to subscribe.

Issue number 10 is titled “Sects”, a reminder that it is not just Marxism-Leninism that is subject to this problem.

In fact, many of my old friends and comrades on the left will be both amused and edified by a keynote article co-authored by Sardar and MerrylWyn Davies titled “Sectarianism Unbound”:

Taz’, a new channel on the Pakistani Geo TV network, is dedicated to twenty-four-hour news. There is a rapid-fire news bulletin every fifteen minutes: hence the name, Taz, or fast. But even after an endless stream of stories about sectarian violence, terrorist atrocities, suicide bombings, ‘target killings’, ‘load shedding’, political corruption and the defeats of the Pakistani cricket team with mundane regularity, there is still ample time left in the schedule. So the slots between the news bulletins are filled with what they call tazaabi tottas – acidic bits, short satirical skits. In one particular sketch, a man, sitting on a bridge, is about to commit suicide by jumping into the river. He is spotted by a passer-by who runs towards him shouting ‘Stop! Stop!’ The two men then engage in the following dialogue:

‘Why are you committing suicide?’

‘Let me die! No one loves me.’

‘God loves you. Do you believe in God?’

‘Yes.’

‘Are you a Muslim, or…’

‘Allah be Praised! I am a Muslim.’

‘I too am a Muslim. Are you a Shia or a Sunni?’

‘Sunni.’

‘I too am a Sunni. What is your school of law?’

‘Hanafi.’

‘Me too! Do you belong to the Deobandi or Bralevi sect?’

‘Deobandi.’

‘Me too! Are you a Tanzihi (pure) Deobandi or a Takfiri (extremist) Deobandi?’

‘Tanzihi.’

‘Me too! Tanzihi of Azmati branch or Farhati branch?’

‘Tanzihi Farhati branch.’

‘Me too!’ Tanzihi Farhati educated at University of Amjair or Tanzihi Farhati educated at Noor University of Mawad?’

‘Tanzihi Farhati educated at Noor University of Mawad.’

‘Infidel, kaffir! You deserve to die!’

The man who came to help then pushes the suicidal man over the bridge.

The humorous sketch gives us deep insight into the state of the Muslim ummah – the transnational Muslim community. It is simply not good enough to be a Muslim. You have to be labelled Sunni or Shia, and from there on progressively put in smaller boxes right down to which particular institution of learning you subscribe to. And those who deviate one iota, follow a different school of thought, or a different historic tradition, or a different fatwa issuing seminary, are, by definition, kaffirs – infidels who deserve to die.

Just in case you think that the sketch deliberately takes sectarianism to ridiculous lengths, consider how the Deobandi sect describes itself. The institution that established the sect, and from which it takes in name, Darul Uloom, Deoband, which in the words of Faizur Rahman is ‘the undisputed Islamic authority in India’, defines its creed as follows: ‘religiously Darul Uloom is Muslim; as a sect, Ahl-e-Sunnatwal-Jama’at (Sunni); in practical method (of law), Hanafi; in conduct, Sufi; dialectically, Maturidi Ash’ari; in respect of the mystic path, Chishtiyyah, rather comprising all the Sufi orders; in thought, Waliyullhian; in principle, Qasimiyah; sectionally, Rasheedian; and as regards connection, Deobandi’. So it is clear! Deobandis are, in descending order: Muslim, Sunni, Hanafi, Sufi, followers of the classical School of Ashari theology, cohorts of the Indian reformer Shah Waliyullah, and supporters of the ‘principles of some marginal scholar called Qasim and partisans of an even more obscure scholar called Rasheed!’

My own article is a review of Akbar Ahmed’s “The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam”, a book that makes the case that the victims of Obama’s drone attacks have more in common with the Apaches or the Lakotas than al-Qaeda.

An excerpt:

Although some anthropologists consider the word “tribal” retrograde and/or imprecise, one would never confuse Ahmed with the colonial-minded social scientist that used it as a way of denigrating “backward” peoples. For Ahmed, the qualities of tribal peoples are to be admired even if some of their behavior is negative. Most of all, they are paragons of true democracy resting on the “consent of the governed”. Their love of freedom inevitably leads them to conflict with state-based powers anxious to assimilate everybody living within their borders to a model of obedience to approved social norms.

While tribal peoples everywhere come into conflict with those trying to impose their will on them, it is only with Islamic tribal peoples that global geopolitics gets drawn into the equation. “The Thistle in the Drone” consists of case studies in which the goal is to disaggregate Islam from tribal norms. For example, despite the fact that the Quran has strict rules against suicide and the murder of noncombatants, tribal peoples fighting under the banner of Islam have often resorted to such measures, especially on the key date of September 11, 2001. In an eye-opening examination of those events, Ahmed proves that a Yemeni tribe acting on the imperative to extract revenge was much more relevant than Wahabi beliefs. While most of the hijackers were identified as Saudi, their origins were in a Yemeni tribe that traced its bloodlines back to the prophet Mohammad. And more to the point, they were determined to wreak vengeance against the superpower that had been complicit in the murderous attack on their tribesmen in Yemen, an element of the 9/11 attacks that has finally been given the attention it deserves.

April 8, 2014

Seymour Hersh as Dorian Gray

Filed under: journalism,Syria — louisproyect @ 5:07 pm

Like his last article for the London Review of Books,  Seymour Hersh’s latest continues to demonstrate that he is no longer a trenchant and truthful investigative reporter. Instead the portrait of a decaying and sloppy propagandist is taking shape, just as damning as the one that caught up with Dorian Gray. While Gray recoiled in horror from what he saw, it is likely that Hersh will persist in his ways since so many of his fans are also committed to demonizing the Syrian rebels and rallying around the “axis of good” in Syria, Iran and Russia. With this 77 year old reporter so badly in need of correction, it is almost tragic that none will be made.

To start with, he likens Barack Obama to George W. Bush as if the rhetoric about “red lines” were to be taken seriously. Hersh believes that he was held back by “military leaders who thought that going to war was both unjustified and potentially disastrous.” I often wonder if people like Hersh bother to read the NY Times or—worse—read it and choose to ignore it.

In fact there was zero interest in a large-scale intervention in Syria in either civilian or military quarters. All this is documented in a NY Times article from October 22nd 2013, written when the alarums over a looming war with Syria were at their loudest, that stated “from the beginning, Mr. Obama made it clear to his aides that he did not envision an American military intervention, even as public calls mounted that year for a no-fly zone to protect Syrian civilians from bombings.” The article stressed the role of White House Chief of Staff Dennis McDonough, who had frequently clashed with the hawkish Samantha Power. In contrast to Power and others with a more overtly “humanitarian intervention” perspective, McDonough “who had perhaps the closest ties to Mr. Obama, remained skeptical. He questioned how much it was in America’s interest to tamp down the violence in Syria.” In other words, the White House policy was and is allowing the Baathists and the rebels to exhaust each other in an endless war, just as was White House policy during the Iran-Iraq conflict.

These pacifist military leaders, Hersh assures us, were suffering sleepless nights over Turkey’s bellicose role in the region.

‘We knew there were some in the Turkish government,’ a former senior US intelligence official, who has access to current intelligence, told me, ‘who believed they could get Assad’s nuts in a vice by dabbling with a sarin attack inside Syria – and forcing Obama to make good on his red line threat.’

With all these unnamed military leaders and spooks at his beck and call, who are we to question Hersh’s analysis? I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, but I don’t put much store in unnamed inside-the-beltway sources after putting up with Judith Miller’s “reporting” in the NY Times back in 2003:

Having concluded that international inspectors are unlikely to find tangible and irrefutable evidence that Iraq is hiding weapons of mass destruction, the Bush administration is preparing its own assessment that will rely heavily on evidence from Iraqi defectors, according to senior administration officials.

I understand that most people on the left are willing to take Hersh’s word at face value but I suppose that is to be expected when they are also partial to RT.com and Iran’s PressTV. Like the Obama voter who takes Rachel Maddow by the loving spoonful, these “radicals” find their bliss in media outlets that do not pass the smell test.

Last December Scott Lucas (http://eaworldview.com/2013/12/syria-special-chemical-weapons-conspiracy-wasnt-seymour-hershs-exclusive-dissected/) surmised that the senior intelligence official Seymour Hersh relies on could very well be F. Michael Maloof. Here’s why. Maloof wrote an article for the ultraright World Net Daily in mid-September 2013 that stated:

In a classified document just obtained by WND, the U.S. military confirms that sarin was confiscated earlier this year from members of the Jabhat al-Nusra Front, the most influential of the rebel Islamists fighting in Syria.

The document says sarin from al-Qaida in Iraq made its way into Turkey and that while some was seized, more could have been used in an attack last March on civilians and Syrian military soldiers in Aleppo.

The document, classified Secret/Noforn – “Not for foreign distribution” – came from the U.S. intelligence community’s National Ground Intelligence Center, or NGIC, and was made available to WND Tuesday.

It revealed that AQI had produced a “bench-scale” form of sarin in Iraq and then transferred it to Turkey.

And here’s something from Hersh’s first article in the LRB:

By late May, the senior intelligence consultant told me, the CIA had briefed the Obama administration on al-Nusra and its work with sarin, and had sent alarming reports that another Sunni fundamentalist group active in Syria, al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI), also understood the science of producing sarin. At the time, al-Nusra was operating in areas close to Damascus, including Eastern Ghouta. An intelligence document issued in mid-summer dealt extensively with Ziyaad Tariq Ahmed, a chemical weapons expert formerly of the Iraqi military, who was said to have moved into Syria and to be operating in Eastern Ghouta. The consultant told me that Tariq had been identified ‘as an al-Nusra guy with a track record of making mustard gas in Iraq and someone who is implicated in making and using sarin’. He is regarded as a high-profile target by the American military.

Can you tell the difference? I can’t.

And to bring things full-circle, it is very likely that the impeccably reliable F. Michael Maloof, who clued Hersh in on the rebels’ possession of WMDs, was the same guy who tipped off Judith Miller. In a June 7, 2004 article New York Magazine article on Miller’s reporting, Franklin Foer described the Miller-Maloof connection:

Miller is said to have depended on a controversial neocon in Feith’s office named Michael Maloof. At one point, in December 2001, Maloof’s security clearance was revoked. In April, Risen reported in the Times, “Several intelligence professionals say he came under scrutiny because of suspicions that he had leaked classified information in the past to the news media, a charge that Mr. Maloof denies.” While Miller might not have intended to march in lockstep with these hawks, she was caught up in an almost irresistible cycle. Because she kept printing the neocon party line, the neocons kept coming to her with huge stories and great quotes, constantly expanding her access.

I suppose that in some sense Maloof would figure prominently in both Miller and Hersh’s “reporting” since what we were dealing with back in 2003 and today is an obsession with jihadists. The very same hysteria over al-Qaeda in Iraq is now manifested over the war in Syria. In 2003 that hysteria served to fuel a horrible war; now it serves to stigmatize and isolate Syrian rebels who are victims both of Baathist bombs and jihadist violence.

Apparently, just at the point Obama was ready to unleash a massive military attack on Syria, another reliably pacifist military figure stepped in at the last moment just like a Royal Canadian Mountie untying a damsel in distress from the railroad tracks:

At this stage, Obama’s premise – that only the Syrian army was capable of deploying sarin – was unravelling. Within a few days of the 21 August attack, the former intelligence official told me, Russian military intelligence operatives had recovered samples of the chemical agent from Ghouta. They analysed it and passed it on to British military intelligence; this was the material sent to Porton Down. (A spokesperson for Porton Down said: ‘Many of the samples analysed in the UK tested positive for the nerve agent sarin.’ MI6 said that it doesn’t comment on intelligence matters.)

I’m sorry. I bow down before the Great Investigative Journalist who uncovered the My Lai massacre 46 years ago, but how can anybody take this kind of bullshit seriously? Russian military intelligence operatives had recovered samples of the chemical agent from Ghouta. Really? We are supposed to take the word of the Russian military that is the prime supplier of weapons and ammunition to the Baathist regime? If I submitted an article to LRB that assured its readers that climate change was a fiction based on the assurances of a scientist who had received $100,000 from coal industry lobbyists, wouldn’t the editor fall on the floor laughing hysterically? Then how in the world does Seymour Hersh’s ludicrous citation of a Russian military operative pass muster?

The remainder of Hersh’s article paints Turkey as a kind of middleman between Libyan shipments of MANPAD’S and Syrian rebels:

Washington abruptly ended the CIA’s role in the transfer of arms from Libya after the attack on the consulate, but the rat line kept going. ‘The United States was no longer in control of what the Turks were relaying to the jihadists,’ the former intelligence official said. Within weeks, as many as forty portable surface-to-air missile launchers, commonly known as manpads, were in the hands of Syrian rebels. On 28 November 2012, Joby Warrick of the Washington Post reported that the previous day rebels near Aleppo had used what was almost certainly a manpad to shoot down a Syrian transport helicopter. ‘The Obama administration,’ Warrick wrote, ‘has steadfastly opposed arming Syrian opposition forces with such missiles, warning that the weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists and be used to shoot down commercial aircraft.’ Two Middle Eastern intelligence officials fingered Qatar as the source, and a former US intelligence analyst speculated that the manpads could have been obtained from Syrian military outposts overrun by the rebels. There was no indication that the rebels’ possession of manpads was likely the unintended consequence of a covert US programme that was no longer under US control.

This would lead you to believe that the USA stood by (“no longer in control”) over arms shipments to Syria, especially the deadly manpads that might bring down a civilian airline, heaven forbid. I know that there is a good chance that Hersh does not read the NY Times, but it seems just as likely that he shuns the Wall Street Journal, which reported on October 17, 2012:

U.S. officials say they are most worried about Russian-designed Manpads provided to Libya making their way to Syria. The U.S. intensified efforts to track and collect man-portable missiles after the 2011 fall of the country’s longtime strongman leader, Moammar Gadhafi.

To keep control of the flow of weapons to the Syrian rebels, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar formed a joint operations room early this year in a covert project U.S. officials watched from afar.

The U.S. has limited its support of the rebels to communications equipment, logistics and intelligence. But U.S. officials have coordinated with the trio of countries sending arms and munitions to the rebels. The Pentagon and CIA ramped up their presence on Turkey’s southern border as the weapons began to flow to the rebels in two to three shipments every week.

In July, the U.S. effectively halted the delivery of at least 18 Manpads sourced from Libya, even as the rebels pleaded for more effective antiaircraft missiles to counter regime airstrikes in Aleppo, people familiar with that delivery said.

Okay, you understand this? The WSJ is saying that America intensified efforts to control manpad’s right after the fall of Qaddafi. Not only that, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar—the three Sunni arch-demons responsible for arming the bearded, “Alluah Akbar” yelling, Sharia law endorsing jihadists formed a joint operations room early this year in a covert project to block the delivery of at least 18 Manpads sourced from Libya, even as the rebels pleaded for more effective antiaircraft missiles. In other words, Hersh is lying. Actually, I don’t know if he is lying or whether a combination of advancing age and a partisan zeal for the Baathist dictatorship has convinced him to avoid reading sources that undercut the propaganda goals he seeks to advance. In any case, it is not a pretty picture—one that Dorian Gray would recoil from in horror.

Sources:

Hersh’s latest LRB article: http://www.lrb.co.uk/2014/04/06/seymour-m-hersh/the-red-line-and-the-rat-line

Scott Lucas’s responses:

http://eaworldview.com/2014/04/syria-hersh-chemical-weapons-conspiracy-insurgents/

http://eaworldview.com/2014/04/syria-special-dissecting-hershs-insurgents-chemical-weapons-attacks-sequel/

Brown Moses responses:

http://brown-moses.blogspot.com/2014/04/seymour-hershs-volcano-problem.html

http://brown-moses.blogspot.com/2014/04/what-does-seymour-hersh-knows-about.html

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cGLULD3LksI

Paul Woodward response:

http://warincontext.org/2014/04/06/seymour-hershs-alternate-reality/

March 14, 2014

Poverty reduction in Venezuela

Filed under: economics,journalism,Venezuela — louisproyect @ 12:17 am

As many of you are aware, Salon.com has been a source of vicious anti-Chavista propaganda for quite some time now. An article by Simeon Tegel titled “5 myths about the Venezuela crisis” is a prime example. What caught my eye particularly was this:

If Maduro and Chavez have a single claim to justify their combined 15 years in power, it’s that they have significantly benefited Venezuela’s poor majority. No one seriously questions that the percentage of Venezuelans classed as poor has dropped from around 50 percent to 30 percent over that period. The problem is that many other countries in Latin America, including staunchly free-market economies Chile and Peru, have registered similar progress over the same period. Just take a look at this graph by Argentine economist Lucas Llach.

Another liberal publication that has it in for Venezuela is the Independent newspaper that gave journalist James Bloodworth the opportunity to make exactly the same point as Tegel, even citing the same graph (since Bloodworth’s article appeared first, it was obvious that Tegel was up to a little plagiarism.)

Between 2007 and 2011 there was a reduction in extreme poverty in Venezuela by some 38 per cent. Impressive no doubt. But the percentage of people who escaped extreme poverty in Brazil during the same period was 44 per cent, in Peru 41 per cent and in Uruguay 63 per cent.

The graph both journalists referred to was actually produced by the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC). One of the things I have learned about statistics is that they are insufficient for telling the whole story, especially when it comes to questions of wealth and poverty—and Venezuela in particular. The problem with the graph is that it cuts off before 2012. After 2012, poverty reduction slows down in all of the cited countries except for the two that are demonized so frequently in places like Salon.com: Venezuela and Ecuador. (I suppose that I don’t have to remind you that Ecuador is another country that gets bashed by liberals like Tegel and Bloodworth at every opportunity.)

The latest report from ECLAC makes exactly such a case:

Six of the 11 countries with information available in 2012 recorded falling poverty levels (see table 1). The largest drop was in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, where poverty fell by 5.6 percentage points (from 29.5% to 23.9%) and extreme poverty by 2.0 percentage points (from 11.7% to 9.7%). In Ecuador, poverty was down by 3.1 percentage points (from 35.3% to 32.2%) and indigence by 0.9 percentage points (from 13.8% to 12.9%).

Another statistic that does not enter Tegel and Bloodworth’s calculations is the GINI coefficient, a measure of income inequality. Bloodworth would probably have not mentioned Brazil if his editor had given him instructions to deal with GINI statistics. At  .546 it is close to Guatemala and Honduras in terms of inequality (a GINI of 1 would be perfectly unequal; zero would be perfectly equal.) At .447, Venezuela is the most economically equal country in Latin America. (http://www.quandl.com/demography/gini-index-all-countries)

I noticed Bloodworth’s favorable reference to Peru, proof supposedly that “Boring social democracy may be less romantic, but it has been far more successful at tackling poverty than the Chavez/Maduro model.” Did Bloodworth think that his readers would not bother to check who is the head of state in Peru? I know that my readers would.

It is none other than Ollanta Humala, a figure who has come in for as much redbaiting as Hugo Chavez over the years. The gold standard for redbaiting—Fox News—just about equated the two politicians in a 2011 article titled “Ollanta Humala of Peru –Hugo Chavez’s Secret Candidate”. After Humala’s election, The Australian rendered its verdict on the direction that Peru would take, a far cry from “boring social democracy”:

A FORMER lieutenant-colonel moulded in the image of the Marxist Venezuelan firebrand Hugo Chavez was elected President of Peru yesterday, adding to the trend of the leftward political drift across Latin America.

Ollanta Humala, 48, narrowly defeated the daughter of an imprisoned former leader in an election campaign that laid bare the rift between the millions of chronically poor and the middle class. The affluent fear punitive taxes, in the style of Mr Humala’s Venezuelan mentor, and a reverse of economic reforms that made Peru one of the most successful economies in Latin America.

January 6, 2014

The New York Times’s free advertisement for genetically modified crops

Filed under: Ecology,farming,food,journalism — louisproyect @ 8:24 pm

University of Hawaii officers hold up Monsanto gift–no strings attached, of course

I am not sure when I began reading the N.Y. Times on daily basis but it must have been just after I graduated Bard College in 1965 and moved to New York City. So addicted I became to the paper that I had recurring bad dreams a few years ago about waking up much later than usual on a Sunday morning and desperately searching newsstands for a copy of the Sunday Times to no avail. In all the years I have been reading the paper, I have never run into a more biased and misleading article than the one that appeared yesterday—a Sunday—under the title “A Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops” by Pulitzer Prize-winning science reporter Amy Harmon. This 5442-word article reads as if someone working for Monsanto wrote it. Harmon, like Clifford Krause who is a shameless propagandist for fracking in the paper’s business section, is clearly an industry spokesperson. Her sordid record is worth examining, as is the question of genetic modification itself that she practically likens to global warming denialism or creationism as this excerpt bears out:

Scientists, who have come to rely on liberals in political battles over stem-cell research, climate change and the teaching of evolution, have been dismayed to find themselves at odds with their traditional allies on this issue. Some compare the hostility to G.M.O.s to the rejection of climate-change science, except with liberal opponents instead of conservative ones.

“These are my people, they’re lefties, I’m with them on almost everything,” said Michael Shintaku, a plant pathologist at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, who testified several times against the bill. “It hurts.”

A number of the pro-GM scientists Harmon refers to are at the University of Hawaii. From the university’s newspaper:

The College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR) at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa received $500,000 from Monsanto Company to establish the Monsanto Research Fellows Fund. The fund will assist graduate students pursuing a masters or PhD degree and post doctoral researchers at the college related to the study of plant science and protection.

 “We are very grateful to Monsanto Company for its generous financial support of CTAHR students engaged in agricultural research – Hawai‘i’s future leaders of sustainable industries and a strong, diversified economy,” said UH Mānoa Chancellor Virginia S. Hinshaw.

Harmon dismisses the idea that the contribution might have an influence on the school by quoting an administration figure that said that the money is only one percent of the school’s budget.

This question of corporate ties to pro-GM scientists is a sensitive one since Monsanto and other such firms have such a shitty reputation. Harmon cites a blog that supports her case:

“Just as many on the political right discount the broad scientific consensus that human activities contribute to global warming, many progressive advocacy groups disregard, reject or ignore the decades of scientific studies demonstrating the safety and wide-reaching benefits” of genetically engineered crops, Pamela Ronald, a professor of plant pathology at the University of California, Davis, wrote on the blog of the nonprofit Biology Fortified.

If you go to Biology Fortified, you will get these assurances on their financial information page:

The site hosting costs of Biology Fortified, Inc. (BFI) were initially footed by the founding editors, and currently the majority of financial support for these overhead costs comes from individual personal donations. BFI is not supported by any companies, government entities, or political parties.

Now I don’t know if Pamela Ronald says the things she says because Monsanto is paying her under the table, but one has to wonder about the journalistic integrity of Amy Harmon by accepting Ronald’s word at face value in light of the reporting on her work at Independent Science News just six weeks before Harmon’s article appeared. Does the N.Y. Times care that Harmon was trawling through the garbage for support? Apparently not. In the article titled “Can the Scientific Reputation of Pamela Ronald, Public Face of GMOs, Be Salvaged?”, we discover:

Did Pamela Ronald jump, or was she pushed?

In fact, scientific doubts had been raised about Ronald-authored publications at least as far back as August 2012. In that month Ronald and co-authors responded in the scientific journal The Plant Cell to a critique from a German group. The German researchers had been unable to repeat Ronald’s discoveries in a third Ax21 paper (Danna et al 2011) and they suggested as a likely reason that her samples were contaminated (Mueller et al 2012).

Furthermore, the German paper also asserted that, for a theoretical reason (3), her group’s claims were inherently unlikely.

In conclusion, the German group wrote:

“While inadvertent contamination is a possible explanation, we cannot finally explain the obvious discrepancies to the results in..…..Danna et al. (2011)”

Pamela Ronald, however, did not concede any of the points raised by the German researchers and did not retract the Danna et al 2011 paper. Instead, she published a rebuttal (Danna et al 2012) (4).

The subsequent retractions, beginning in January 2013 (of Lee et al 2009 and Han et al 2011), however, confirm that in fact very sizable scientific errors were being made in the Ronald laboratory. But more importantly for the ‘Kudos to Pam’ story, it was not Pamela Ronald who initiated public discussion of the credibility of her research.

Harmon can’t resist taking a potshot at Vandana Shiva, who is probably the best known critic of GM crops in the world today:

Monsanto’s cotton, engineered with a gene from bacteria to ward off certain insects, had “pushed 270,000 farmers to suicide” since the company started selling it in India in 2002, the activist Vandana Shiva said in a Honolulu speech Ms. Wille attended.

But in Nature, a leading academic journal, Mr. Ilagan [a Hawaiian elected politician who favors GM] found an article with the subhead “GM Cotton Has Driven Farmers to Suicide: False.”

You can read Shiva’s rebuttal to the Nature article here but I think it is far more worthwhile to consider what India’s Supreme Court has decided. In October 2012 they called for a 10 year ban on Monsanto’s GM cotton over worries that “transgenics can contaminate and adversely affect the biodiversity”. The last time I checked the Indian Supreme Court was not exactly a champion of poor peasants or environmental safety. Something must be going on, no?

Furthermore, the Hindustan Times reported on March 26, 2012 that a “Secret govt note says Bt cotton failing, leading to farmer suicides” had been leaked to the press. The government agency referred to in the article was the Ministry of Agriculture, which like the Supreme Court was not to be mistaken for Vandana Shiva even on its best days.

Harmon makes the case that genetically modified papayas have been a boon to the Hawaiian economy relying on the expertise of one Jon Suzuki. Unfortunately, she neglects to mention that he is an employee of the United States Department of Agriculture, an agency that has been presented with over 5,000 applications for field trials of genetically engineered crops. Not a single one has been denied.

This is now the third article in a row in which Harmon has made the case for GM crops. So egregious has been her advocacy that it has even attracted the notice of the Columbia Journalism Review that gave her the benefit of the doubt, no doubt a function of the journalism school’s cozy relationship to the gray lady. I do recommend a look at it, however, since it will give you an idea of the amount of controversy Amy Harmon has been generating. It is focused on food policy expert Michael Pollan’s disapproving tweet of an earlier Harmon article: “Important NYT story on GM oranges; 2 many industry talking pts.” For those unaccustomed to the 140-character straight jacket imposes, the 2 means too. The concluding paragraphs of the CJR article will give you a sense of the authoritative journal’s unease with Amy Harmon’s reporting, despite her Pulitzer Prize (but then again Thomas Friedman has a wheelbarrow full of them.)

In many ways this is less a clash of journalistic ethics than of journalistic styles. Pollan would like Harmon to use more of the history and economics of crop modification to give a picture of Monsanto’s cornering of the market. Harmon explicitly chose to leave out such scope to focus on the narrative at hand. “I didn’t consider it my responsibility to put in 20 years of the GMO debate,” she says.

But without a fact-driven chronicling of GMO’s lineage, Harmon’s story of innovation lacks what Pollan considers crucial context. “Should we be debating what GM might do to feed the 9 billion, or should we debate what, after 15 years in the market, it can and has done,” he says. “They’re always trying to get us to focus on these wonders to come. And I’m looking forward to the wonders to come too. I just haven’t seen them yet.”

December 18, 2013

Seymour Hersh and his unnamed sources

Filed under: journalism — louisproyect @ 11:23 pm

Ever since Seymour Hersh’s “Whose Sarin” article appeared in the London Review of Books, there’s something that’s been nagging at me that I couldn’t put my finger on. This afternoon it all became clear to me. Instead of describing it, I think a couple of examples should suffice:

A former senior intelligence official told me that the Obama administration had altered the available information – in terms of its timing and sequence – to enable the president and his advisers to make intelligence retrieved days after the attack look as if it had been picked up and analysed in real time, as the attack was happening.

–Seymour Hersh, Whose Sarin?

Hussein’s staying power is remarkable. In the months after he invaded Kuwait in 1990, the United States learned of several attempts on his life that he thwarted. “We had knowledge of at least one,” said a former senior official from the first Bush administration. After U.S. and coalition forces defeated and drove Hussein’s forces from Kuwait in March 1991, inflicting one of the largest and most visible military humiliations of the post-Vietnam period, the former official said, “We thought some colonel or brigadier general would march in and shoot him.”

–Bob Woodward, The Washington Post, June 16, 2002

Now stop and ask yourself when was the last time that someone like Glenn Greenwald cited a “former senior official”? Or when Alexander Cockburn was alive, can you remember him ever citing some unnamed source either currently or formerly ensconced in the CIA or the State Department?

The simple fact of the matter is that their reputations preceded them. Nobody in the CIA would ever spend 5 minutes “spilling the beans” to a Glenn Greenwald or an Alexander Cockburn. The use of unnamed sources at the highest echelons of the “deep state” is characteristic of bourgeois journalism. The only reason we give someone like Seymour Hersh a free pass on an article larded in just about every paragraph with oh-so-impressive unnamed sources is because he broke the My Lai story 44 years ago. He went on to write some other important investigative pieces in the 1990s but for the past 20 years or so, his reporting has mostly followed the same trajectory as Woodward’s but from the left side of the ledger rather than the center-right.

For many people unfamiliar with the ups and downs of the bourgeois journalism racket, it might come as a surprise to learn that his peers do not view him as walking on water. In December 2001 Michael Massing wrote an article for the Nation Magazine lamenting the tendency of reporters to rally around the “war on terror”. Guess who was included?

Another, more serious example of the press’s credulity has been its coverage of the US intelligence services. In light of the failures to predict the September 11 attacks, the press has almost unanimously concluded that the United States needs to beef up its spying abroad and to “unleash” the CIA to fight terrorism. In a piece for The New Yorker, for instance, Seymour Hersh, relying heavily on sources within the US intelligence community, lambasted the CIA for turning away from the rough-and-tumble methods it used during the cold war. “Look,” one agent told Hersh, “we recruited assholes. I handled bad guys. But we don’t recruit people from the Little Sisters of the Poor–they don’t know anything.”

As it turns out, the article is not behind a paywall. You can read it at http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2001/10/08/011008fa_FACT. This will give you a flavor for the reliance on “unnamed sources” that virtually turn Hersh into a stenographer for the CIA:

In interviews over the past two weeks, a number of intelligence officials have raised questions about Osama bin Laden’s capabilities. “This guy sits in a cave in Afghanistan and he’s running this operation?” one C.I.A. official asked. “It’s so huge. He couldn’t have done it alone.” A senior military officer told me that because of the visas and other documentation needed to infiltrate team members into the United States a major foreign intelligence service might also have been involved. “To get somebody to fly an airplane—to kill himself,” the official added, further suggests that “somebody paid his family a hell of a lot of money.”

Frankly, if I had asked someone who keeps up on current events whether Bob Woodward or Seymour Hersh wrote this, they’d be hard pressed to come up with the right answer.

But the words in the article that should warn lefties about taking Hersh at his word are the ones below, exactly the sort of propaganda that has led to extraordinary renditions, waterboarding, drone attacks and all the rest. Maybe Hersh didn’t realize it at the time, but that’s no excuse.

One hard question is what lengths the C.I.A. should go to. In an interview, two former operations officers cited the tactics used in the late nineteen-eighties by the Jordanian security service, in its successful effort to bring down Abu Nidal, the Palestinian who led what was at the time “the most dangerous terrorist organization in existence,” according to the State Department. Abu Nidal’s group was best known for its role in two bloody gun and grenade attacks on check-in desks for El Al, the Israeli airline, at the Rome and Vienna airports in December, 1985. At his peak, Abu Nidal threatened the life of King Hussein of Jordan—whom he called “the pygmy king”—and the King responded, according to the former intelligence officers, by telling his state security service, “Go get them.”

The Jordanians did not move directly against suspected Abu Nidal followers but seized close family members instead—mothers and brothers. The Abu Nidal suspect would be approached, given a telephone, and told to call his mother, who would say, according to one C.I.A. man, “Son, they’ll take care of me if you don’t do what they ask.” (To his knowledge, the official carefully added, all the suspects agreed to talk before any family members were actually harmed.) By the early nineteen-nineties, the group was crippled by internal dissent and was no longer a significant terrorist organization. (Abu Nidal, now in his sixties and in poor health, is believed to be living quietly in Egypt.) “Jordan is the one nation that totally succeeded in penetrating a group,” the official added. “You have to get their families under control.”

Such tactics defy the American rule of law, of course, and the C.I.A.’s procedures, but, when it comes to Osama bin Laden and his accomplices, the official insisted, there is no alternative. “We need to do this—knock them down one by one,” he said. “Are we serious about getting rid of the problem—instead of sitting around making diversity quilts?”

Can you imagine Glenn Greenwald or Alexander Cockburn ever getting unnamed CIA officials to talk to them about the benefits of coercing family members to help snare their children? What else would be useful in “getting rid of the problem”? Waterboarding? Sleep deprivation? If that’s investigative journalism, then I’ll have no part of it.

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