Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 12, 2018

Bitter Money; Pow Wow

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 4:05 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, JANUARY 12, 2018

Later this month, Lincoln Plaza Cinema will be shutting down not because it could not sell tickets for its middle-of-the-road art movies but because Milstein Properties decided not to renew its lease. Milstein claims that after major construction repairs to the high-rise above the screening rooms in the basement are complete, the space will be reserved for another theater. It is likely that it will not be owned by Dan and Toby Talbot, the husband-and-wife team who founded Lincoln Plaza in 1981.

Dan Talbot, who died last month at the age of 91, was a vanguard figure in New York’s arthouse cinema. He founded the New Yorker theater on the Upper West Side in 1960 and it soon became a shrine to revivals of classic films like “Citizen Kane” or the latest Kurosawa or Fellini. After graduating NYU, his first gig in the film business was writing reviews for The Progressive, a pacifist magazine based in Wisconsin.

This is by no means a scientific finding but Googling “Louis Proyect” and “Lincoln Plaza” returns 879 links, nearly all to my reviews. At the top of the list is my article on “Lifta”, an Israeli film that broaches the possibility of reconciliation between Zionists and their Palestinian victims. I had never considered this before but my colleague in NYFCO Jordan Hoffman saw the theater as catering to the sensibilities of elderly liberal Jews on the Upper West Side in a Village Voice article about the closing of the theater:

The concession stand sells popcorn and Milk Duds, but also smoked salmon sandwiches. This is the neighborhood of Zabar’s and Barney Greengrass and the JCC Manhattan and a block ceremonially named Isaac Bashevis Singer Boulevard. This Christmas, the neighborhood Jews, ordained as they are to go to the movies and then hit a Szechuan Palace after, included Lincoln Plaza in their ritual for the last time. A final congregation at the Ciné-gogue. It’s a Shanda [shame].

It is unlikely that anything like the New Yorker or Lincoln Plaza will ever be launched on the Upper West Side again because real estate has become prohibitively expensive in Manhattan. In an article on the closing of Lincoln Plaza in the New Yorker magazine, film critic Richard Brody said that new theaters will likely be found downtown where real estate is still relatively affordable. But even there, the prospects are guarded as evidenced by the closing of Landmark Sunshine at 139 East Houston St. this month, which was sold for $31.5 million to East End Capital and K Property Group, who will presumably turn it into condos up above and a CVS or health club on the street level. With the proliferation of health clubs in NY and the demise of arthouses like Lincoln Plaza, we will end up with 6-pack bellies galore and plunging literacy.

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January 5, 2018

Trumping Democracy

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Trump — louisproyect @ 9:55 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, January 5, 2018

Available from Cinema Libre Studios, “Trumping Democracy” provides the key to understanding how we have ended up with the most unpopular president in history. Despite the tsunami of reports about Russia meddling with the 2016 elections, this gripping documentary makes the case that it was instead the result of a combination of Robert Mercer’s funding and the computer-based Psyops his Cambridge Analytica firm exploited. This one-two punch produced a president that Gary Cohn described, according to Michael Wolff’s new bombshell book, Fire and Fury, as a “An idiot surrounded by clowns.”

Including the director Thomas Huchon, “Trumping Democracy” was the product of a creative team that despite (or, perhaps because of) its French provenance has a sharper focus on our national calamity than MSNBC, CNN and all the other usual suspects. Huchon’s last documentary “Conspi Hunter” was based on a bogus conspiracy theory about the CIA inventing the AID virus in order to subvert Cuba. He released the film online in order to show how quickly and easily conspiracy theories can go viral on the Internet. Given the role of Breitbart News and Infowars in the Trump campaign, it was logical that Huchon would make his latest film a kind of follow-up to “Conspi Hunter”.

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December 29, 2017

The Fearless Benjamin Lay

Filed under: Counterpunch,religion,slavery — louisproyect @ 3:13 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, DECEMBER 29, 2017


A decade ago I reviewed “Amazing Grace”, a hagiographic biopic about William Wilberforce, the parliamentary opponent of the slave trade in Great Britain. Since I am far more interested in a film’s politics than tracking shots, I saw it as an opportunity to cut Wilberforce down to size:

The film was meant to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the passing of the bill that banned the slave trade in the British Empire, an event that constitutes the climactic scene.

What it does not make clear is that the bill did not abolish slavery itself, which would persist in Jamaica and other British colonies for another 30 years. When younger and more militant abolitionists pressed Wilberforce to enter legislation to that effect, he replied that because of the effect “which long continuance of abject slavery produces on the human mind…I look to the improvement of their minds, and to the diffusion among them of those domestic charities which will render them more fit, than I fear they now are, to bear emancipation.” In other words, the slaves were not ready for their freedom.

If my goal was to cut Wilberforce down to size, this article seeks to demonstrate that Benjamin Lay, a working-class hunchback dwarf born 72 years before, was a giant when it came to abolitionism. Unlike Wilberforce, Lay was a radical who demanded that the Quaker elite free their slaves and take a principled stand against slavery when the peculiar institution was far more in the interests of a rising empire than during Wilberforce’s years in Parliament when free trade was being adopted during the rise of economic liberalism.

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December 26, 2017

How a Russian troll sucker-punched CounterPunch

Filed under: Counterpunch — louisproyect @ 6:17 pm

Yesterday’s Washington Post had a startling article titled “Kremlin trolls burned across the Internet as Washington debated options” that begins:

The first email arrived in the inbox of CounterPunch, a left-leaning American news and opinion website, at 3:26 a.m. — the middle of the day in Moscow.

“Hello, my name is Alice Donovan and I’m a beginner freelance journalist,” read the Feb. 26, 2016 message.

The FBI was tracking Donovan as part of a months-long counterintelligence operation code-named “NorthernNight.” Internal bureau reports described her as a pseudonymous foot soldier in an army of Kremlin-led trolls seeking to undermine America’s democratic institutions.

Her first articles as a freelancer for CounterPunch and at least 10 other online publications weren’t especially political. As the 2016 presidential election heated up, Donovan’s message shifted. Increasingly, she seemed to be doing the Kremlin’s bidding by stoking discontent toward Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton and touting WikiLeaks, which U.S. officials say was a tool of Russia’s broad influence operation to affect the presidential race.

“There’s no denying the emails that Julian Assange has picked up from inside the Democratic Party are real,” she wrote in August 2016 for a website called We Are Change. “The emails have exposed Hillary Clinton in a major way — and almost no one is reporting on it.”

Since the article is behind a paywall, I have appended it to the bottom of this post.

While the article starts off on Jeff’s initial encounter with Donovan, it then changes gear and relates how the Obama administration dropped the ball on countering what it calls “disinformation”.

For example, it mentions that a State Department official named Richard Stengel was unable to pump episodes of “Game of Thrones” into Russia. This failure was equated to bringing a tiny, little Swiss Army knife to a gunfight. It is not exactly clear what difference that escapist fantasy would make on Russian politics but in fact it had already shown up on REN-TV, a private station owned by self-professed liberals that has a far greater reach than RT has in the USA.

They return to Jeff in the concluding paragraphs:

In late November, The Post informed Jeffrey St. Clair, CounterPunch’s editor, that the FBI suspects that Donovan is a Russian government persona. St. Clair said in an interview that Donovan’s submissions didn’t stand out among the 75 or so pitches he receives each day.

On Nov. 30, he sent her an email saying he wanted to discuss her work. When he got no response, St. Clair followed up with a direct message on Twitter, asking her to call him immediately.

On Dec. 5 Donovan finally replied by email: “I do not want to talk to anyone for security reasons.”

St. Clair tapped out a new message, begging her to provide proof — a photograph of her driver’s license or passport — that would show that she was the beginning freelance journalist she claimed to be in her introductory email from 2016.

“It shouldn’t be that difficult to substantiate,” he wrote.

He has yet to receive a response.

You can now read a response to the Post article on CounterPunch co-written by Jeff St. Clair and Joshua Frank that is much more gripping than any spy novel written by Eric Ambler. Titled Go Ask Alice: the Curious Case of “Alice Donovan”,  it grapples with puzzles even harder to solve than why Russia sponsored ads during the 2016 elections that took both sides of a hotly debated issue like immigration. Can you imagine the Voice of America broadcasting the pro and con side of Pussy Riot or homophobia in Russia? I can’t.

Essentially, Alice Donovan was submitting the same types of articles that have appeared a million times in CounterPunch, Consortium News, the Nation, AlterNet, the London Review of Books, the New York Review of Books, The Independent, the Boston Globe, et al from the liberal to radical left. You can also read the same analysis on the right, from David Horowitz to David Duke. Did the Kremlin think that her pro-Assad articles would make a difference in the battle for ideas that people like me lost 4 years ago? If so, then it is not the master of dezinformatsiya that the Post article would have you believe. Indeed, the main threat to democracy in the USA is not the Russian-backed troll farms or RT.com. It is the iron grip on the media from the Clintonista NY Times and Washington Post on one side and the Murdoch-type media on the other. The one missing perspective on Syria or Ukraine—two of the supposedly critical terrains of geopolitical struggle—is based on class. Did you think that either the New York Review of Books or the New York Post had any interest in reporting on the class contradictions of Syria in 2011? You have to be fucking kidding.

Much of the article deals with the question of determining the identity of Alice Donovan, who the FBI identified as a Russian operative. How exactly is someone like Jeff St. Clair supposed to track this down? I was shocked to see that he has to deal with 75 submissions a day. If he was responsible for making sure that some pro-Assad article was being written by a real “anti-imperialist”, whose numbers exceed the grains of sand on the Coney Island beach, rather than someone operating out of a Moscow basement, there would be no CounterPunch. In fact, I read through my submissions at least 3 times on Thursday to catch any typos because I don’t expect Jeff to do it. Even then, I miss them occasionally to my chagrin.

Maybe if CounterPunch was funded to the same degree as Truthout or AlterNet, this would be possible. For the fiscal year 2015-2016, Truthout reported income of $1,244,266 to the IRS while AlterNet operated on a budget of $1,825,395.00 last year. CounterPunch’s annual fund-drive this year amounted to $75,000 for comparison’s sake. Meanwhile, there are usually over 50 articles a week on CounterPunch whose provenance would be beyond AlterNet’s ability to validate, let alone the two-person team of Jeff St. Clair and Joshua Frank.

There’s only one cavil I have with Jeff and Joshua’s penetrating analysis of this mysterious intervention by one Alice Donovan. They write:

There’s no question that Donovan’s writings gave weight to the idea that US interference in both Syria and Ukraine might spark a new and dangerous Cold War. But there’s nothing remarkable about those sentiments. It’s a perspective that is at least partially shared by many US foreign policy analysts, from Stephen Cohen to Henry Kissinger. And it’s a perspective that readers are entitled, though rarely given the opportunity, to hear.

As I pointed out earlier, there are ample opportunities to hear such perspectives. You can even describe them as hegemonic even though you would get the impression from many on the left that this is just like 2003 and the USA is poised for a “regime change” operation in Syria. Ironically, the USA has been intervening massively in Syria but mostly against the jihadists that are supposedly a threat to all we hold dear (Madonna videos, cabernet sauvignon, Marlboro cigarettes, etc.) For the entire time, the USA was bombing ISIS-controlled territory in Iraq and Syria, there was not a peep from the “anti-imperialist” left. It was up to my friend Anand Gopal to make the biggest stink about the American warmongering in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, of all places. This was the sort of investigative reporting a responsible left should have been engaged in, if it wasn’t so fucked up. If you haven’t read Gopal’s article, I invited you to read it now. Here’s a representative paragraph:

LATER THAT SAME day, the American-led coalition fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria uploaded a video to its YouTube channel. The clip, titled “Coalition Airstrike Destroys Daesh VBIED Facility Near Mosul, Iraq 20 Sept 2015,” shows spectral black-and-white night-vision footage of two sprawling compounds, filmed by an aircraft slowly rotating above. There is no sound. Within seconds, the structures disappear in bursts of black smoke. The target, according to the caption, was a car-bomb factory, a hub in a network of “multiple facilities spread across Mosul used to produce VBIEDs for ISIL’s terrorist activities,” posing “a direct threat to both civilians and Iraqi security forces.” Later, when he found the video, Basim could watch only the first few frames. He knew immediately that the buildings were his and his brother’s houses.

That’s the sort of information we used to get from Wikileaks—that is until Julian Assange turned into Alice Donovan.


Kremlin trolls burned across the Internet as Washington debated options

By Adam Entous, Ellen Nakashima and Greg Jaffe December 25 at 2:14 PM

The first email arrived in the inbox of CounterPunch, a left-leaning American news and opinion website, at 3:26 a.m. — the middle of the day in Moscow.

“Hello, my name is Alice Donovan and I’m a beginner freelance journalist,” read the Feb. 26, 2016 message.

The FBI was tracking Donovan as part of a months-long counterintelligence operation code-named “NorthernNight.” Internal bureau reports described her as a pseudonymous foot soldier in an army of Kremlin-led trolls seeking to undermine America’s democratic institutions.

Her first articles as a freelancer for CounterPunch and at least 10 other online publications weren’t especially political. As the 2016 presidential election heated up, Donovan’s message shifted. Increasingly, she seemed to be doing the Kremlin’s bidding by stoking discontent toward Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton and touting WikiLeaks, which U.S. officials say was a tool of Russia’s broad influence operation to affect the presidential race.

“There’s no denying the emails that Julian Assange has picked up from inside the Democratic Party are real,” she wrote in August 2016 for a website called We Are Change. “The emails have exposed Hillary Clinton in a major way — and almost no one is reporting on it.”

The events surrounding the FBI’s NorthernNight investigation follow a pattern that repeated for years as the Russian threat was building: U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies saw some warning signs of Russian meddling in Europe and later in the United States but never fully grasped the breadth of the Kremlin’s ambitions. Top U.S. policymakers didn’t appreciate the dangers, then scrambled to draw up options to fight back. In the end, big plans died of internal disagreement, a fear of making matters worse or a misguided belief in the resilience of American society and its democratic institutions.

One previously unreported order — a sweeping presidential finding to combat global cyberthreats — prompted U.S. spy agencies to plan a half-dozen specific operations to counter the Russian threat. But one year after those instructions were given, the Trump White House remains divided over whether to act, intelligence officials said.

This account of the United States’ piecemeal response to the Russian disinformation threat is based on interviews with dozens of current and former senior U.S. officials at the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department, and U.S. and European intelligence services, as well as NATO representatives and top European diplomats.

The miscalculations and bureaucratic inertia that left the United States vulnerable to Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election trace back to decisions made at the end of the Cold War, when senior policymakers assumed Moscow would be a partner and largely pulled the United States out of information warfare. When relations soured, officials dismissed Russia as a “third-rate regional power” that would limit its meddling to the fledgling democracies on its periphery.

Senior U.S. officials didn’t think Russia would dare shift its focus to the United States. “I thought our ground was not as fertile,” said Antony J. Blinken, President Barack Obama’s deputy secretary of state. “We believed that the truth shall set you free, that the truth would prevail. That proved a bit naive.”

The sun sets at the White House on Dec. 19. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

With the 2018 elections fast approaching, the debate over how to deal with Russia continues. Many in the Trump White House, including the president, play down the effects of Russian interference and complain that the U.S. intelligence report on the 2016 election has been weaponized by Democrats seeking to undermine Trump.

“If it changed one electoral vote, you tell me,” said a senior Trump administration official, who, like others, requested anonymity to speak frankly. “The Russians didn’t tell Hillary Clinton not to campaign in Wisconsin. Tell me how many votes the Russians changed in Macomb County [in Michigan]. The president is right. The Democrats are using the report to delegitimize the presidency.”

Other senior officials in the White House, the intelligence community and the Pentagon have little doubt that the Russians remain focused on meddling in U.S. politics.

“We should have every expectation that what we witnessed last year is not a one-shot deal,” said Douglas E. Lute, the former U.S. ambassador to NATO. “The Russians are onto something. They found a weakness, and they will be back in 2018 and 2020 with a more sophisticated and targeted approach.”

Digital blitz

The United States and the Soviet Union engaged in an all-out information battle during the Cold War. But the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and the Bill Clinton administration and Congress in 1999 shuttered America’s preeminent global information agency.

“They thought it was all over and that we’d won the propaganda war,” said Joseph D. Duffey, the last director of the U.S. Information Agency, which was charged with influencing foreign populations.

When President Vladimir Putin came to power, Russia began searching for ways to make up for its diminished military. Officials seized on influence campaigns and cyberwarfare as equalizers. Both were cheap, easy to deploy and hard for an open and networked society such as the United States to defend against.

Early warning signs of the growing Russian disinformation threat included the 2005 launch of RT, the Kremlin-funded TV network, and the 2007 cyberattacks that overwhelmed Estonia’s banks, government ministries and newspapers. A year later, the Kremlin launched a digital blitz that temporarily shut down Georgia’s broadcasters and defaced the website of its president.

Closer to home for Americans, Russian government trolls in 2012 went after a U.S. ambassador for the first time on social media, inundating his Twitter account with threats.

But for U.S. officials, the real wake-up call came in early 2014 when the Russians annexed Crimea and backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. An intercepted Russian military intelligence report dated February 2014 documented how Moscow created fake personas to spread disinformation on social media to buttress its broader military campaign.

The classified Russian intelligence report, obtained by The Washington Post, offered examples of the messages the fake personas spread. “Brigades of westerners are now on their way to rob and kill us,” wrote one operative posing as a Russian-speaking Ukrainian. “Morals have been replaced by thirst for blood and hatred toward anything Russian.”

Officials in the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence branch, drafted the document as part of an effort to convince Kremlin higher-ups of the campaign’s effectiveness. Officials boasted of creating a fake Facebook account they used to send death threats to 14 politicians in southeastern Ukraine.

Five days into the campaign, the GRU said, its fake accounts were garnering 200,000 views a day.

Mixing entertainment, news and propaganda

The Ukraine operation offered the Americans their first glimpse of the power of Russia’s post-Cold War playbook.

In March 2014, Obama paid a visit to NATO headquarters, where he listened as unnerved allies warned him of the growing Russia threat. Aides wanted to give the president options to push back.

President Barack Obama speaks in Brussels after meeting with NATO leaders in March 2014 about, among other things, the threat posed by Russia. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

In the White House Situation Room a few weeks later, they pitched him on creating several global channels — in Russian, Mandarin and other languages — that would compete with RT. The proposed American versions would mix entertainment with news programing and pro-Western propaganda.

The president brushed aside the idea as politically impractical.

In the Situation Room that day was Richard Stengel, the undersecretary for public diplomacy at the State Department, who, like Obama, disliked the idea. “There were all these guys in government who had never created one minute of TV content talking about creating a whole network,” said Stengel, the former top editor at Time magazine. “I remember early on telling a friend of mine in TV that people don’t like government content. And he said, ‘No, they don’t like bad content, and government content sucks.’ ”

So Stengel began to look for alternatives to counter the threat. Across Eastern Europe and Ukraine, Russian-language channels mixing entertainment, news and propaganda were spreading the Kremlin’s message. Stengel wanted to help pro-Western stations on Russia’s periphery steal back audiences from the Russian stations by giving them popular American television shows and movies.

Shortly after Obama nixed the idea of American-funded networks, Stengel traveled to Los Angeles in the hope that a patriotic appeal to Hollywood executives might persuade them to give him some blockbusters free.

Stengel’s best bet was Michael M. Lynton, then the chairman of Sony Pictures, who had grown up in the Netherlands and immediately understood what Stengel was trying to do. He recalled how in the 1970s one Dutch political party sponsored episodes of “M.A.S.H.” to portray America as sympathetic to the antiwar movement. A rival party bought the rights to “All in the Family” to send the message that U.S. cities were filled with bigots like Archie Bunker.

But Sony’s agreements with broadcasters in the region prevented Lynton from giving away programming. Other studios also turned Stengel away.

Back in Washington, Stengel got Voice of America to launch a round-the-clock Russian-language news broadcast and found a few million dollars to translate PBS documentaries on the Founding Fathers and the American Civil War into Russian for broadcast in eastern Ukraine. He had wanted programing such as “Game of Thrones” but would instead have to settle for the likes of Ken Burns.

“We brought a tiny, little Swiss Army knife to a gunfight,” he said.

A counter-disinformation team

The task of countering what the Russians were doing fell to a few underfunded bureaucrats at the State Department who journeyed to the CIA, the NSA, the Pentagon and the FBI searching for help and finding little.

U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies in the aftermath of 9/11 prioritized counterterrorism. They worried about the legal peril of snooping on social media and inadvertently interfering with Americans’ communications. The State Department created a small team to tweet messages about Ukraine, but they were vastly outnumbered by the Russian trolls.

Frustrated U.S. officials concluded that the best information on Russia’s social media campaign in Ukraine wasn’t coming from U.S. intelligence agencies, but from independent researchers. In April 2015, Lawrence Alexander, a 29-year-old self-taught programmer who lived with his parents in Brighton, Britain, received an unexpected Twitter message from a State Department official who reported to Stengel.

“Can you show what [the Russians] are swarming on in real time?” the official, Macon Phillips, asked. “Your work gave me an idea.”

A few months later, Phillips requested an in-person meeting. Alexander, who suffers from a genetic disorder that often leaves him chronically fatigued, wasn’t able to make the two-hour trek to the U.S. Embassy in London. So Phillips took the train to Brighton, where Alexander walked him through his research, which was spurred by his alarm over Putin’s intervention in Ukraine and his crackdown on gays and journalists.

Phillips’s ideas sprang from his work on Obama’s first presidential campaign, which used social media analytics to target supporters. One proposal now was to identify “online influencers” who were active on social media spreading Kremlin messages. Phillips wanted to use analytics to target them with U.S. counterarguments.

State Department lawyers, citing the Privacy Act, demanded guarantees that data on Americans using social media wouldn’t inadvertently be collected as part of the effort.

The pre-Internet law restricts the collection of data related to the ways Americans exercise their First Amendment rights. The lawyers concluded that it applied to tweets, leaving some State Department officials baffled.

“When you tweet, it’s public,” said Moira Whelan, a former deputy assistant secretary for digital strategy. “We weren’t interested in Americans.”

The lawyers’ objections couldn’t be overcome. The project, which Phillips worked on for more than a year, was dead.

Zapping servers

While Stengel and Phillips were struggling to make do with limited resources, the CIA, at the direction of Obama’s top national security advisers, was secretly drafting proposals for covert action.

Russia hawks in the administration wanted far-reaching options that, they argued, would convince Putin that the price he would pay for continued meddling in the politics of neighboring democracies would be “certain and great,” said a former official involved in the debate.

One of the covert options that officials discussed called for U.S. spy agencies to create fake websites and personas on social media to fight back against the Kremlin’s trolls in Europe. Proponents wanted to spread anti-Kremlin messages, drawing on U.S. intelligence about Russian military activities and government corruption. But others doubted the effectiveness of using the CIA to conduct influence operations against an adversary that operated with far fewer constraints. Or they objected to the idea of U.S. spies even doing counterpropaganda.

James R. Clapper Jr., the top spy in the Obama administration, said in an interview that he didn’t think the United States “should emulate the Russians.”

Another potential line of attack involved using cyberweapons to take down Russian-controlled websites and zap servers used to control fake Russian personas — measures some officials thought would have little long-term effect or would prompt Russian retaliation.

The covert proposals, which were circulated in 2015 by David S. Cohen, then the CIA’s deputy director, divided the administration and intelligence agencies and never reached the national security cabinet or the president for consideration. Cohen declined to comment.

Putin and Obama shake hands at the United Nations in September 2015. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

After top White House officials received intelligence in the summer of 2016 about Putin’s efforts to help Trump, the deadlocked debate over covert options to counter the Kremlin was revived. Obama was loath to take any action that might prompt the Russians to disrupt voting. So he warned Putin to back off and then watched to see what the Russians would do.

After the election, Obama’s advisers moved to finalize a package of retaliatory measures.

Officials briefly considered rushing out an overarching new order, known as a presidential finding, that for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union would authorize sweeping covert operations against Russia. But they opted against such a far-reaching approach. Instead, the White House decided on a targeted cyber-response that would make use of an existing presidential finding designed to combat cyberthreats around the world rather than from Russia specifically.

As a supplement to the cyber finding, Obama signed a separate, narrower order, known as a “Memorandum of Notification,” which gave the CIA the authority to plan operations against Russia. Senior administration and intelligence officials discussed a half-dozen specific actions, some of which required implants in Russian networks that could be triggered remotely to attack computer systems.

Members of the Obama administration expected that the CIA would need a few weeks or, in some cases, months to finish planning for the proposed operations.

“Those actions were cooked,” said a former official. “They had been vetted and agreed to in concept.”

Obama left behind a road map. Trump would have to decide whether to implement it.

‘This is what we live with’

Before Trump took office, a U.S. government delegation flew to NATO headquarters in Brussels to brief allies on what American intelligence agencies had learned about Russian tactics during the presidential election.

U.S. officials are normally reluctant to share sensitive intelligence with the alliance’s main decision-making body. But an exception was made in this case to help “fireproof” all 28 allies in case Russia targeted them next, a senior U.S. official said.

The Obama administration had gone through an agonizing learning curve. The Russians, beginning in 2014, had hacked the State Department and the White House before targeting the Democratic National Committee and other political institutions. By the time U.S. officials came to grips with the threat, it was too late to act. Now they wanted to make sure NATO allies didn’t repeat their mistakes.

Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary general, gaveled the closed-door session to order, and the Americans ran through their 30-minute presentation. The Europeans had for years been journeying to Washington to warn senior U.S. officials about Russian meddling in their elections. The Americans had listened politely but didn’t seem particularly alarmed by the threat, reflecting a widely held belief inside the U.S. government that its democratic institutions and society weren’t nearly as vulnerable as those in Europe.

For the first time since the days after 9/11, the American officials in Brussels sounded overwhelmed and humbled, said a European ambassador in the room.

When the briefers finished, the allies made clear to the Americans that little in the presentation surprised them. “This is what we’ve been telling you for some time,” the Europeans said, according to Lute, the NATO ambassador. “This is what we live with. Welcome to our lives.”

Mr. Preemption

After Trump took office, Russia’s army of trolls began to shift their focus within the United States, according to U.S. intelligence reports. Instead of spreading messages to bolster Trump, they returned to their long-held objective of sowing discord in U.S. society and undermining American global influence. Trump’s presidency and policies became a Russian disinformation target.

Articles from Donovan and other Kremlin-backed personas slammed the Trump administration for, among other things, supporting “terrorists” and authorizing military strikes that killed children in Syria.

“They are all about disruption,” said a former official briefed on the intelligence. “They want a distracted United States that can’t counter Vladimir Putin’s ambitions.”

The dilemma facing the Trump White House was an old one: how to respond.

In the weeks before Trump’s inauguration, Brett Holmgren, a top intelligence official in the Obama White House, briefed Ezra Cohen-Watnick, his Trump administration counterpart, on the actions Obama had taken. Holmgren and Cohen-Watnick declined to comment.

Once in the job, Cohen-Watnick sent out memos identifying counterintelligence threats, including Russia’s, as his top priority, officials said.

He convened regular meetings in the White House Situation Room at which he pressed counterintelligence officials in other government agencies, including the CIA, to finalize plans for Russia, including those left behind by the Obama team, according to officials in attendance.

By spring, national security adviser H.R. McMaster, senior White House Russia adviser Fiona Hill and Cohen-Watnick began advocating measures to counter Russian disinformation using covert influence and cyber-operations, according to officials.

But, just as in the Obama administration, the most far-reaching ideas ran into obstacles.

McMaster and Tom Bossert, Trump’s homeland security adviser, both laid claim to controlling the cyber-portfolio and would sometimes issue conflicting instructions that left policymakers and intelligence officials confused about whose direction to follow.

Obama’s 11th-hour actions had cleared the way for spy agencies to conduct cyber-operations to counter the Russian threat. But the CIA still had to finalize the plans, and the Trump White House wanted to review them.

Bossert was more cautious than McMaster about using cyber-tools offensively. His message to the National Security Council staff, a senior White House official said, was: “We have to do our homework. Everybody needs to slow down.”

Directing the CIA to conduct covert influence operations was a similarly fraught process. Before the agency could proceed, intelligence officials informed the White House that it would need new authorities from the president.

To Trump officials, the CIA appeared to be more interested in other priorities, such as proposals to target WikiLeaks. The National Security Council and the CIA declined to comment on the covert options.

The policy debates were further complicated by the difficulty of even raising Russian meddling with a president who viewed the subject as an attack on his legitimacy.

[Doubting the intelligence, Trump pursues Putin and leaves a Russian threat unchecked]

In an effort to bring Trump around, officials presented him with evidence of Putin’s duplicity and continued interference in U.S. politics. But the president’s recent public statements suggest that he continues to believe that he is making progress in building a good relationship with the Russian leader.

Earlier this month, Trump noted that Putin, in his end-of-year news conference, had praised Trump’s stewardship of the U.S. economy.

“He said very nice things,” Trump told reporters.

Putin later called Trump to praise the CIA for providing Russia with intelligence about a suspected terrorist plot in St. Petersburg. “That’s a great thing,” Trump said after the second call with the Russian leader, “and the way it’s supposed to work.”

Even White House officials who take the Russia threat seriously fret that aggressive covert action will just provoke Putin to increase his assault on a vulnerable United States.

“One of the things I’ve learned over many, many years of looking at Russia and Putin is that he’s Mr. Preemption. If he thinks that somebody else is capable of doing something to him, he gets out ahead of it,” said a senior administration official. “We have to be extraordinarily careful.”

What’s real and not real

The Kremlin has given little indication that it intends to back off its disinformation campaign inside the United States. More than a year after the FBI first identified Alice Donovan as a probable Russian troll, she’s still pitching stories to U.S. publications.

In the spring, Donovan’s name appeared on articles criticizing Trump’s conduct of the war in Syria and defending Russian-backed leader Bashar al-Assad. “U.S.-led coalition airstrike on Assad’s troops not accidental,” the headline of a May 20 piece on CounterPunch read. Her last piece for CounterPunch, headlined “Civil War in Venezuela,” was published Oct. 16.

Other pieces under her byline have been published in recent months at Veterans Today, where Gordon Duff, the site’s editor, said he knew nothing about Donovan.

“I don’t edit what people do,” Duff said. “If it’s original, I’ll publish it. I don’t decide what’s real and not real.”

At We Are Change, which has also recently published Donovan’s work, Luke Rudkowski, one of the site’s founders, wondered why the FBI didn’t contact his publication with its suspicions. “I wish we could get information from the FBI so we could understand what’s really happening,” he said. “I wish they had been more transparent.”

The FBI, in keeping with its standard practice in counterintelligence investigations, has kept a close hold on information about Donovan and other suspected Russian personas peddling messages inside the United States.

The bureau does not have the authority to shut down the accounts of suspected trolls housed on U.S. social media companies’ platforms. “We’re not the thought police,” said one former senior law enforcement official.

The Russians are taking advantage of “seams between our policies, our laws and our bureaucracy,” said Austin Branch, a former Defense Department official who specialized in information operations.

The FBI said in a statement that it has employed cyber, criminal and counterintelligence tools to deal with the disinformation threat. “The FBI takes seriously any attempts to influence U.S. systems and processes,” the statement said.

In late November, The Post informed Jeffrey St. Clair, CounterPunch’s editor, that the FBI suspects that Donovan is a Russian government persona. St. Clair said in an interview that Donovan’s submissions didn’t stand out among the 75 or so pitches he receives each day.

On Nov. 30, he sent her an email saying he wanted to discuss her work. When he got no response, St. Clair followed up with a direct message on Twitter, asking her to call him immediately.

On Dec. 5 Donovan finally replied by email: “I do not want to talk to anyone for security reasons.”

St. Clair tapped out a new message, begging her to provide proof — a photograph of her driver’s license or passport — that would show that she was the beginning freelance journalist she claimed to be in her introductory email from 2016.

“It shouldn’t be that difficult to substantiate,” he wrote.

He has yet to receive a response.

Julie Tate contributed to this report.

Adam Entous writes about national security, foreign policy and intelligence for The Post. He joined the newspaper in 2016 after more than 20 years with The Wall Street Journal and Reuters, where he covered the Pentagon, the CIA, the White House and Congress. He covered President George W. Bush for five years after the September 11, 2001, attacks.

Ellen Nakashima is a national security reporter for The Washington Post. She covers cybersecurity, surveillance, counterterrorism and intelligence issues.

Follow @nakashimae

Greg Jaffe is a national security reporter for The Washington Post, where he has been since March 2009. Previously, he covered the White House and the military for The Post.

Follow @GregJaffe

December 23, 2017

How Jacobin got Henry Wallace wrong

Filed under: anti-Communism,Counterpunch — louisproyect @ 8:10 pm

Like the last issue of Jacobin that attempted—poorly—to theorize ecology, the latest one devoted to the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution has generated controversy. John Bellamy Foster took apart the last issue and the ISO’s Todd Chretien has a whack at the new one that dispenses with his usually genial manner. He quite rightly views the “garlic” article by Connor Kilpatrick and Adaner Usmani as having a conclusion that “doesn’t even pass the smell test” and advancing “a rotten old argument.” That’s even more brutal that my commentary on the article.

When I heard that there was an article in the latest issue by editorial board member Seth Ackerman dumping on Henry Wallace, I decided to comment on it as well especially since my good friend Michael Yates of Monthly Review loathed it.

Ackerman is a fairly typical Jacobin type, working on a Ph.D. in history at Cornell University and who supports Democratic Party candidates using circumlocutions that might have made Gus Hall dizzy:

Decisions about how individual candidates appear on the ballot would be made on a case-by-case basis and on pragmatic grounds, depending on the election laws and partisan coloration of the state or district in question. In any given race, the organization could choose to run in major- or minor-party primaries, as nonpartisan independents, or even, theoretically, on the organization’s own ballot line.

This, of course, dovetails with Eric Blanc’s defense of the Non-Partisan League running campaigns on the Democratic Party ballot line 90 years ago as well as the dodgy strategy now being carried out by the DSA.

Alarm bells went off early on in Ackerman’s article (behind a paywall) when it charged Henry Wallace being a dupe of the Communist Party. He cited a historian named Thomas W. Devine whose “devastating account” of the 1948 Progressive Party in a book titled “Henry Wallace’s 1948 Presidential Campaign and the Future of Postwar Liberalism” fingered all the reds. A New Yorker article I remember well hailed Devine’s research:

Wallace’s relationship with Communism is the most fraught aspect of his career, and it dominates Devine’s book, which might be called a revision of the revisionists. At intervals since the seventies, scholars on the left have argued that Wallace’s politics—embodied most conspicuously in his run for the Presidency on the Progressive Party ticket, in 1948—opened a window of opportunity for the advancement of labor, race, and internationalist causes, and that Cold War red-baiting closed it prematurely.

I guess I am one of those revisionists since I not only singled out his campaign as a model for the left but criticized the SWP for not having the brains to get involved with it back in 1948. In discussions with Sol Dollinger, a supporter of the Cochranite group that I strongly identify with, I learned that Bert Cochran, Harry Braverman, and the mostly working-class supporters of the American Socialist magazine viewed the SWP’s hostility to Wallace as a symptom of the party’s Stalinophobia.

In summing up the Wallace campaign, Ackerman was likely recycling Devine’s conclusions, among which was that it “catastrophically isolated the Communist Party, sundering its ties to the labor movement and heightening its vulnerability to the coming tsunami of Cold War repression.” Strange. I always thought that the CP’s isolation (I would call it persecution) began with Winston Churchill’s 1946 “Iron Curtain” speech. That was followed up a year later by Harry Truman’s Executive Order 9835 that would purge “disloyal” employees from government jobs. As I have often stated, McCarthyism began under Truman.

Doing a search in JSTOR revealed that Devine’s scholarly contributions appear rather meager, consisting of only 4 book reviews. Consistent with his detective work on the Wallace campaign was a review of a book by David Everitt titled “A Shadow of Red: Communism and the Blacklist in Radio and Television” that Devine recommended because it debunked the notion that McCarthyism was an unprecedented “reign of terror” in which cynical, venal “red hunters” deliberately and relentlessly destroyed the lives and careers of anyone who so much as expressed support for racial equality or civil liberties”. Devine described this as “gauzy romanticism”.

The NY Sun, a shitty rightwing newspaper that was founded by the arch-reactionary billionaire Conrad Black and other scumbags, loved Everitt’s book as well. A reviewer particularly liked the way it nailed John Henry Faulk, a victim of McCarthyism who I spoke to once when I was in Houston, Texas building support for the SWP’s suit against the FBI. Faulk was universally beloved on Texas left back then even though Leveritt hoped to wake people up to the red menace:

Though he presented himself as a well-meaning, even naïve, liberal, Faulk was in fact a hardened left-winger with communist sympathies who privately denigrated the country he lived in. He was hardly the “Southern liberal … who detested Communism,” as Nizer put it on the witness stand; he even believed the Korean War had been planned by John Foster Dulles and Douglas MacArthur in conjunction with the pro-Chiang Kai-shek China lobby, each determined to introduce a policy that would offset the effects of the American abandonment of China.

Ah, yes. What a blackguard.

Is this really the way that the fucking Jacobin is going? What a shame.

I’ll defend Henry Wallace any day of the week, sticking to my “revisionist” convictions of the late 60s. If that disqualifies me as a “new Communist” in Adaner Usmani and Connor Kilpatrick’s eyes, so be it.

Here’s the way I see it.

During the 1930s there were opportunities for a third party based on the trade union movement, but because of the hegemony of the Communist Party, they were squandered. FDR’s New Deal attracted the blind support of the CP, even as the party ran its own ineffective propaganda campaigns for president.

Ironically it was the turn of the US ruling class against the New Deal consensus that precipitated a third party initiative in 1948, the Progressive Party campaign of Henry Wallace. In many ways, Wallace symbolized the most progressive aspects of the New Deal. As Secretary of Agriculture, he and colleague Harold Ickes played the role of liberal conscience in the FDR cabinet. He took the principles of the New Deal at face value and decided to launch the Progressive Party in the face of what he considered their betrayal at the hands of Harry Truman.

The Wallace campaign has served as a whipping boy for dogmatic Marxist electoral theorizing, much of which I took seriously when I was in the Trotskyist movement. It was supposed to prove what a dead end middle class electoral politics was, in contrast to the insurmountable power and logic of a Labor Party. Unfortunately, the Labor Party existed only in the realm of propaganda while the Wallace campaign, with all its flaws, existed in the realm of reality.

While most people are aware of Wallace’s resistance to the Cold War and to some of the more egregious anti-union policies of the Democrats and Republicans, it is important to stress the degree to which his campaign embraced the nascent civil rights movement.

Early in the campaign, Wallace went on a tour of the south. True to his party’s principles, he announced in advance that he would neither address segregated audiences nor stay in segregated hotels. This was virtually an unprecedented measure to be taken at the time by a major politician. Wallace paid for it dearly. In a generally hostile study of Henry Wallace (Henry A. Wallace: His Search for a New World Order, Graham White and John Maze), the authors begrudgingly pay their respects to the courage and militancy of the candidate:

The southern tour had begun peacefully enough in Virginia, despite the existence in that state of a law banning racially mixed public assemblies. In Norfolk, Suffolk, and Richmond, Wallace spoke to unsegregated and largely receptive audiences. But when the party went on into supposedly more liberal North Carolina, where there was no law against unsegregated meetings, the violence started. A near riot preceded his first address, and a supporter, James D. Harris of Charlotte, was stabbed twice in the arm and six times in the back. The next day there was no bloodshed, but Wallace was subjected to a barrage of eggs and fruit, and the crowd of about five hundred got so completely out of control that he had to abandon his speech. At Hickory, North Carolina, the barrage of eggs and tomatoes and the shouting were so furious that Wallace was prevented from speaking, but he tried to deliver a parting thrust over the public address system: ‘As Jesus Christ told his disciples, when you enter a town that will not hear you willingly, then shake the dust of that town from your feet and go elsewhere.’ If they closed their minds against his message, he would, like Jesus Christ, abandon them to their iniquity.

Wallace was trounced badly as a result of Truman’s demagogic appeal to some bread-and-butter issues supported by the trade union bureaucracy, which was also working overtime to purge CP’ers out of the trade unions. Furthermore, since the CP had done nothing to defend trade union prerogatives during WWII, even to the extent of supporting speed up, many rank and filers considered them to be enemies of the labor movement. On top of this, the 1948 CP coup in Czechoslovakia against the social democratic government of Edward Benes alienated many liberals and even some leftists. Despite efforts by Wallace to keep Stalin at arm’s length, the rightwing in the United States was able to exploit resentment over the situation in Czechoslovakia and paint Wallace as a “Communist dupe”.

When the votes were counted, Wallace only received 2.37 percent of the total. This disaster set the tone for a general offensive against the left in the US, focusing particularly on the CP. In no time at all, the witch-hunt was unleashed, mobs attacked the Paul Robeson concert in Peekskill, and the Korean War broke out. There is very little doubt that the Wallace campaign and the forces gathered around it were the sole force capable at that time of putting a roadblock in the way of this quasi-fascist movement. If the labor movement had not been put on the defensive, if the civil rights movement had been able to move ahead under the general framework of Progressive Party campaigns, perhaps the dismal 1950s would have not been inevitable. This is not a socialist revolution, but it is the real class struggle nonetheless. Seeing the relationship between the two processes requires some dialectical insight.

 

December 22, 2017

Wind River; Hostiles

Filed under: Counterpunch,indigenous — louisproyect @ 2:27 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, DECEMBER 22, 2017

“Wind River” and “Hostiles”, two of this year’s highly praised films and clear-cut Oscar bait, have a number of things in common. They both feature bankable white male stars in leading roles as good-hearted saviors of indigenous peoples in the time-honored (speaking charitably) tradition of “Dances with Wolves”: Jeremy Renner and Christian Bale. They also were directed and written by white males who made the transition from acting careers: Taylor Sheridan and Scott Cooper. And, finally, they are both marred by political and artistic shortcomings. After making the case for them being rated “rotten” on Rotten Tomatoes, I will conclude with some thoughts on what might go into a Hollywood film about native peoples although I doubt The Weinstein Company (the distributor of “Wind River” that was cut loose by Taylor Sheridan after news broke about its sexual predator boss) would be interested.

This review will reveal the endings of both films but I doubt that by the time you get to that point in the article, you’ll have little interest in seeing either of them.

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December 19, 2017

The Post; The Newspaperman: The Life and Times of Ben Bradlee

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,television — louisproyect @ 3:01 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, DECEMBER 19, 2017

Among the stack of DVD’s received from studio publicists last month was Stephen Spielberg’s “The Post” that is both an homage to a newspaper that has propagandized for every imperialist war as well as a surprisingly candid examination of how it became possible partly through the internecine social ties between the paper’s owner and the warmongering political establishment.

The film is based on the decision of the Washington Post to defy the government’s ban on publishing the Pentagon Papers in 1971 in the aftermath of the same action taken against the New York Times. To understand how paradoxical “The Post” is, it contains both a sympathetic portrayal of A.M. Rosenthal as well as ones sympathetic to his opposite numbers Daniel Ellsberg and Ben Bagdikian.

Although Ellsberg certainly doesn’t need any introduction to CounterPunch readers, Ben Bagdikian is one of the 20th century’s great media heroes. Not only was he instrumental in pushing the Post into defying the government, he was a tireless critic of the media establishment that tolerated Washington Post owner Katherine Graham socializing with Robert McNamara at the same time he was escalating the monstrous war against the Vietnamese. In 1983, he wrote a book titled “Media Monopoly” that was certainly an influence on Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman. Played to perfection by Bob Odenkirk, Ben Bagdikian is the film’s moral and political center even though he plays second fiddle to Tom Hanks who is cast as Ben Bradlee.

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December 8, 2017

Dunkirk; Darkest Hour

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 5:37 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, December 7, 2017

Thanks to my membership in New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO), I am the recipient of a virtual wheelbarrow of DVD’s sent out by studio publicists hoping to sway my vote for best movie at our annual awards meeting on December 9th. These are generally films I tend to avoid through the year so I look forward to seeing them if for no other reason to help me pass judgment on the likely finalists in our deliberations. No obscure neorealist, radical, foreign-language films are likely to make the cut.

It turns out that two of the films are set in 1940 and have to do with the evacuation of British soldiers from Dunkirk, a city on the coast of France. The first is Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk”, a film that I would never spend good money to see since I detest his work. It is still playing in theaters everywhere. The second is “Darkest Hour”, a biopic about Churchill that opens on December 21. Like Nolan, director Joe Wright is English. After seeing the two films, the only award that I would consider making is for best work by a makeup artist. Whoever turned the lean and angular Gary Oldman into the spitting image of Churchill in Wright’s film deserves one. Needless to say, Oldman did not have to work too hard at conveying Churchill’s character since he is every bit as racist and reactionary, stating in a 2014 Playboy interview that Mel Gibson’s reputation as an anti-Semite was unfair but to be expected in a “town run by the Jews”.

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December 1, 2017

On the Other Side of Hope; Happy End

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,immigration — louisproyect @ 2:51 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, DECEMBER 1, 2017

 

The films of Finland’s Aki Kaurismaki and Austria’s Michael Haneke have nothing in common stylistically but do share a loathing for European bourgeois society. Their latest films additionally share a concern about one particular aspect of that decaying world, namely the persecution of immigrants. Kauriskmaki’s “The Other Side of Hope” that opens today at the Film Forum in New York is about the struggle of a Syrian refugee from Aleppo to survive on the hostile streets of Helsinki. Haneke’s “Happy End” is mostly about a bourgeois household coming apart at the seams but the climax of the film includes African immigrants from the refugee camp near the Calais entrance to the Eurotunnel crashing a fancy banquet. The effect is the same that Buñuel sought in “Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”, an attack on the complacency and moral rot of the rich. “Happy End” opens on January 22nd at the Film Forum as well as the Lincoln Plaza in New York. Both films are artistic triumphs as well as devastating blows against a world that is rapidly going mad.

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November 24, 2017

The Witchfinders

Filed under: Counterpunch,Syria — louisproyect @ 5:38 pm

Jonathan Cook: tireless propagandist for Assad

 Jonathan Cook wrote an article for CounterPunch on Wednesday that connected Israel’s bombing of a non-existent nuclear plant in Syria 10 years ago to the sarin gas incident in Khan Sheikhoun this year. By casting aspersions on the journalists and scholars who tried to clear Bashar al-Assad of having anything to do with Khan Sheikhoun, George Monbiot’s article exposed him in Cook’s eyes as “The left’s Witchfinder General” and just as culpable of promoting “regime change” as the lying neocons of yore.

Cook was reacting to Monbiot and “many others” that challenge the versions put forward by Seymour Hersh, Gareth Porter, and Theodor Postol. The first two blame the civilian deaths on the accidental bombing of fertilizer and/or pesticides that generated a toxic cloud with sarin gas-like symptoms, while Postol implicitly blames jihadists for mounting a false flag incident by setting off a sarin gas bomb when nobody was watching. Since Monbiot’s article credited me as a blogger who “patiently explored and demolished” Postol’s theories (his account went through several iterations), I have vested interest in this discussion as a fellow Witchfinder General  (or at least a Corporal).

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