Friday, May 11, 2012

Obama Comes Out In Favor Of Gay Marriage, Antebellum-Style

P. Stanislaw 

Before I get to what's on my mind, let me just say that of all the issues related to LGBT rights or the lack thereof, the ones that the corporate media seem to think are most important are military service and marriage. We don't seem to mind letting them lead the cultural and societal conversation by limiting the discussion to these two issues - well most of us, anyway. I'd like to say that it has always been my fervent hope that my LGBT friends would lead the way toward the eradication of such antiquated institutions - one, a glorified celebration of conquest, carnage, genocide and domination - the other, essentially a license to co-own another's "being".

That said, let me say that the smug satisfaction being displayed by the Obamanauts regarding his "coming out" in favor of gay marriage is ridiculous, since he wiggled his way out of it by asserting "states' rights". Really? Civil rights don't come under the purview of the federal gov't anymore? Since when? Didn't we have a li'l dust-up regarding this somewhere in the 1860's. Yes, I believe we did. States are NOT allowed to dictate preferred civil rights or repeal them once conferred. Our great Hope for Change uttered an utter absurdity and we all fall to our knees over another "historic" event! Somebody shoot me, please...a Democratic graduate of Harvard Law should definitely know better.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Real Story of the Cuban 5
What Lies Across the Water
I am a late-comer to the case of the Cuban Five. I stumbled on the story a few years ago while researching a novel—a love story—set partly in Cuba.
During a trip to Havana in the spring of 2009, I struck up a friendship with a guide who was showing me the city I wouldn’t see as a tourist. Partly to make conversation and partly because I was curious, I asked him what he thought of the prospects for improved relations between Havana and Washington now that Barak Obama was in the White House.
He didn’t hesitate. “Forget Obama,” he said. “Nothing will change until the case of the Five is resolved.”
The Cuban Five? I’d barely heard of them.
So he gave me a history lesson—about how a group of Cuban intelligence agents had uncovered a plot to be blow up an airplane; about how author Gabriel Garcia Marquez had carried a secret message from Fidel Castro to Bill Clinton with details of the plot; about how a delegation from the FBI had gone to Havana to meet with their counterparts in Cuban State Security to discuss it; and how, less than three months later, the FBI had arrested not the Miami-based terrorists who were planning to blow up the plane but the Cuban intelligence agents who were trying to stop them.
You can look it up, he said.
I did. I found a Fidel Castro speech on the Internet that outlined the Cuban version of events. Castro even read into the record the entire 4,000-word text of a previously secret report Garcia Marquez had written to Castro following his meeting with White House officials in Washington.
I was hooked. I put the novel on hold and began researching the nonfiction story of the Cuban Five.
I came at it as a “story” rather than a “cause,” and I think that’s important. Too often there is a sense of rote in our rhetoric about the Five. They are the “five heroes” who were “unjustly accused,” “unfairly tried and convicted” and then “punitively punished” simply for being “anti-terrorist fighters.”
It’s all true, of course, but it doesn’t help convince those who aren’t already convinced. Many Americans, I don’t have to tell you, are prepared to believe the worst about Cuba, and especially about Cuban government agents.
My goal was to tell the story—and it is a fascinating story—as a nonfiction narrative.
It begins in 1990 when a civilian Cuban pilot named René González “stole” a plane in Havana and flew it to Key West where he “defected.” González, in fact, was the first of the five Cuban intelligence agents sent to set up shop in Florida.
He arrived soon after a debate about the fate of Orlando Bosch had raged in the Miami media. Bosch—a well known anti-Cuban terrorist considered one of the masterminds behind a 1976 explosion aboard a Cubana Airlines plane that killed 73 people—had applied for residency in the U.S.. The justice department (though not necessarily the White House) opposed his application; Miami’s exile community supported Bosch. Guess who won?
I wanted to incorporate into the unfolding narrative details about what the various Miami exile groups were actually plotting (a lot), what the U.S. government was doing to stop them (precious little) and what the Cuban intelligence agents were learning about what the exiles were really up to (plenty).
As part of my research, I read the 20,000-plus pages of transcript from the trial of the Five, examined the binders-full of even more thousands of pages of decoded documents and correspondence between the Cuban agents and their bosses back in Havana.
I began a still-ongoing, still un-won battle with the FBI for documents relating to what I believe is a critically important meeting between the FBI and Cuban State Security in Havana in June 1998. After two years of appeals, I have only finally gotten the FBI to admit there are documents. But I’m still waiting to see them.
I also, of course, interviewed key figures in Havana, Miami and Washington—none of them more intriguing than Percy Alvarado.
Though not one of the Five, Alvarado too was a Cuban intelligence agent who operated in Miami around the same time as the Five. He claims he infiltrated the powerful Cuban American National Foundation. Key members of the Foundation recruited him to plant bombs in Cuba, he says. And Luis Posada himself—an acknowledged anti-Castro terrorist—trained him how to assemble the bombs he was supposed to sneak into Cuba.
Now let’s be clear. Everyone in this business lies. It is the nature of the clandestine world, and you should never take it on faith that anyone—American or Cuban—is telling the whole truth. That said, I was struck by the fact that what Alvarado publicly alleged in 1999 was later corroborated—inadvertently—by a senior official of CANF who just happened to be suing his former comrades in arms.
I also interviewed, by mail and email, members of the Five. I found them to be impressive, courageous figures.
I want to talk today about some of what I learned in that process. It wasn’t always what I expected. Or what I’d been told to expect.
The versions I’d read from some Cuban Five supporters, for instance, made it appear as if the FBI had learned the identities of the Five because of the information Cuban State Security turned over to them at those meetings in June 1998.
That’s not true. The FBI had been following the Cubans since at least 1996.
Which raises an intriguing question. Why did the FBI arrest them when they did?
I’ll come back to that.
The Cubans have also been at pains to argue that their agents were only in Florida to monitor the activities of exile terrorists groups.
Again, not entirely true.
One of the agents, Antonio Guerrero had an almost exclusively military mission. That inconvenient truth—rarely acknowledged by Cuban authorities—has provided anti-Castro mainstream journalists and commentators the opportunity to make it appear as if the Cubans’ primary mission was to “infiltrate” American military bases or steal U.S. secrets.
It wasn’t. The military aspect of their duties was minor—and there is an important context to it. Guerrero’s primary function was to serve as the canary in the coal mine, an early warning system of a possible U.S. invasion of Cuba.
The U.S. has satellites to keep an eye on its enemies—a variation on spying we accept as legitimate. The Cubans can’t afford satellites. They have human observers instead. Like Tony Guerrero.
His job was to pay attention to the comings and goings of military aircraft at the Boca Chica Naval Station. Was there a sudden build up of planes on the runways? What kinds? An unusual number of brass-hat visitors to the base?
The Cubans had legitimate reasons to fear an invasion—and not just because that’s what the influential Miami exile leadership prayed for each night. The Cubans knew what had already happened in Haiti, in Panama.
What did the Cuban agents actually do in Florida?
Most of the time they kept a close watch on exile groups they believed were plotting attacks on their homeland. They knew that those militant exile groups were rarely arrested, even more rarely tried and almost never convicted.
To keep the exiles from succeeding, the agents had to be inventive.
Consider just one example from July of 1998, two months before they were arrested.
Gerardo Hernandez, the controller of the Miami agents, received an urgent coded message from Havana that there was a vaguely identified “boat bomb” filled with weapons and explosives docked in the Miami River. The vessel was destined to be used as a weapon against Cuba.
Hernandez and his team of agents soon tracked down the vessel at a marina near a populated area.
What to do about it?
They certainly didn’t want to allow the vessel to sail, of course, but Hernandez realized the options Havana had suggested—blowing up the vessel, or sinking it—were all too risky, and might endanger innocent civilians.
Instead, Hernandez messaged his bosses, cleverly suggesting someone call the FBI anonymously and tip them off about the boat’s cargo.
A week later, a story appeared in the Miami Herald. The headline: ANTI TERRORISM RAID COMES UP EMPTY. The story detailed how members of Miami’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, acting on an anonymous tip, had raided vessels in a Miami River marina. They were looking for explosives and guns destined for a “third country.” But the raid was a “bust,” according to an FBI spokesman. They didn’t find anything.
How hard were they looking? The FBI agent in charge was a guy named George Kisynzki. Two weeks earlier, in the pages of the New York Times, Luis Posada himself had described the agent as a “very good friend.”
What was going on? “Law enforcement veterans saw the search as an FBI hint… to cancel any conspiracies,” the Miami Herald reported. “That’s a common practice in South Florida… known as ‘admonishing’ or ‘demobilizing’ an operation.”
We later learned more about this particular incident. The boat’s owner was a man named Enrique Bassas. Bassas, a wealthy Miami businessman, had been one of the co-founders of a sixties-era terrorist umbrella group called CORU, which had been responsible for blowing up that Cuban plane in 1976. More recently, Cuban intelligence had identified Bassas as one of the financiers of a new mercenary, anti-Castro army being organized in Miami.
Perhaps most significantly, the month before the raid, Bassas had been in Guatemala City meeting with Luis Posada. They were, according to a later report, trying to figure out how to sneak weapons and explosives into the Dominican Republic.
The Dominican Republic? That just happened to be where Fidel Castro was scheduled to speak the following month.
The Miami Herald later reported on this botched assassination plot and came up with its own—close to the money—explanation for what had gone wrong. Cuban intelligence agents, explained the Herald, “presumed by most law enforcement and exile experts to have penetrated many exile organizations, tipped the FBI to protect Castro’s life during the visit to the Dominican Republic.”
There are a lot of episodes like that in the trial records. It’s also clear from those records the Cuban agents weren’t interested in using violence to achieve their objective of preventing exile attacks on their homeland.
Which is more than can be said for the exiles.
But what then are we to make of the most damaging charge—conspiracy to commit murder—against Gerardo Hernandez?
That charge relates to the February 1996 shootdown of two unarmed Brothers to the Rescue aircraft in the Straits of Florida that killed four civilians.
There’s no doubt that charge—filed seven months after the arrests—affected the cases of all five defendants and unduly influenced the harsh sentences they all received. Including, of course, Hernandez himself, who is currently serving two life sentences plus 15 years in prison for his supposed role in the shootdown.
And the allegation continues to resonate today. Whenever the question of pardoning the Five, or swapping them for the American Alan Gross is raised, the inevitable answer is that the U.S. could never consider such a deal because the Five were responsible for the deaths of four innocent men.
I spent a lot of time focusing on that allegation. I read the transcript. I studied the court documents. I read the International Civil Aviation report on the incident.
The reality is that there is not a shred of compelling evidence to suggest Gerardo Hernandez knew about the plan to shoot down the planes, or that he had any control over, or role in what happened.
Indeed the evidence paints a very different picture of what Hernandez really knew.
Cuban State Security is famed for its compartmentalization. I tell another story in the book about two agents who’d infiltrated the same exile group and the efforts Havana undertook to make sure neither man knew the other was actually working for the same side.
The back-and-forth memos between Havana and its field officers in the lead-up to the shootdown make it clear everything was on a need-to-know basis—and Gerardo Hernandez didn’t need to know what the Cuban military was considering.
There are, of course, plenty of other unresolved issues about the shootdown.
Were the Brothers’ planes in international waters as the Americans claim, or in Cuban airspace as Havana argues? The best answer to that question could come from U.S. satellite images taken by any one of more than a half-dozen satellites the American government and its agencies had tracking events that day, but Washington so far refuses to release them.
More importantly, was shooting down the planes a reasonable response to the Brothers’ provocation?
Those provocations had been going on for seven intense months prior to the shootdown. The Cubans had complained. Washington had tried—and failed—to prevent the continuing overflights. And the Cubans had sent several clear messages to Washington that it would take action if there were any more illegal incursions into their territory.
To make matters worse, the Cubans knew—thanks to their agents—that Brothers to the Rescue were test firing air-to-ground weapons they could conceivably decide to use against Cuba. They were more than a nuisance; they were a threat.
That said, I don’t believe the shootdown was the most reasonable response. There were alternatives, including forcing the planes down and putting the pilots on trial.
But my view doesn’t change the only important reality: Gerardo Hernandez was not involved in shooting down the planes and he should never have been charged.
Which leads to yet another question: should the Five themselves have ever been charged with anything?
Well, they did commit crimes. They failed to register as foreign agents, and three of them carried false identity documents. Those are minor, commonplace crimes in the world of intelligence; American agents operating in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Moscow and elsewhere commit them everyday.
But there is no evidence the Cuban agents stole military secrets or threatened American security. That’s why they were never charged with actual espionage—just “conspiracy to commit espionage.” A thought crime versus an actual crime.
The other point that’s worth making is that the FBI knew exactly who the Cuban agents were and what they were doing in Florida. They’d been following them for at least two years. They’d broken into their apartments, stolen their computer disks, decoded them. They knew what they did each day, even about their love lives.
Let me give you just one example of how closely the FBI followed the Cuban agents. In April 1998, one of the Five traveled to New York to meet—supposedly secretly—with an intelligence officer from the Cuban Mission there. The FBI knew about the rendezvous—at a Wendy’s on the Hempstead Turnpike—far enough in advance that they were not able to have seven video cameras and countless still cameras recording the meeting but they were also able to plant of their own 35 agents at the fast food restaurant that day. It must have been a surprisingly good day for the operators of that Wendy’s!
So let’s consider the situation from the point of view of the FBI. You have complete access to a Cuban intelligence network and, better, the Cubans don’t know you do. You know that they’re not doing anything to threaten U.S. security; in fact, much of what they’re doing—monitoring compliance with the U.S. Neutrality Act—is your job.
So why arrest them?
The moment you arrest them, you lose access to this unfolding intelligence gold mine. And, worse, you know these captured agents will simply be replaced by another group of agents—and then you’ll have to discover the new guys and start all over again.
So why arrest the Five when they did?
There are things we don’t know about that. But there are some things we do.
In May 1998, the FBI appointed a new Special Agent in Charge of its Miami Field Office. His name was Hector Pesquera, the first Hispanic to head up that very important, very political FBI field office in the heartland of Cuban America.
We know Pesquera quickly made friends with key leaders in the Miami Cuban exile community, including a convicted felon who’d been a former police officer in Batista’s pre-Castro Cuba—not to forget a number of high-profile exile leaders Cuban intelligence had identified as terrorists.
It was just a month after Pesquera arrived on the scene, of course, that the FBI delegation flew to Havana to meet with their Cuban counterparts. That’s when the Cubans gave the FBI documents fingering some of Pesquera’s new friends as terrorists.
The Cubans would later say they believed the agents who came to Havana treated the information they turned over to them seriously, and genuinely intended to follow up.
And yet, three months later, FBI swat teams swooped in and arrested the Five, ignoring the exile plotters entirely.
We know Pesquera made that decision. We know because he said so. After he’d initially been appointed, Pesquera told a Spanish language radio station following the arrests, “I was updated on everything there was. We then began to concentrate on this investigation. As far as intelligence[-gathering] is concerned, [I decided] it shouldn’t be there anymore; it should change course and become a criminal investigation.”
We know his agents on the ground objected.
We also know—because Pesquera himself bragged about it—that he lobbied all the way to the top of the FBI food chain in Washington for authorization to make the arrests. He later told the Miami Herald the case “never would have made it to court” if he hadn’t lobbied FBI Director Louis Freeh directly. “To this day there are people in my headquarters who are not completely sold.”
No kidding.
I’ve tried to interview Pesquera, who retired from the FBI in 2003—after authorizing the destruction of the FBI’s files on Luis Posada—but he continues to give me the runaround.
Late last month, however, Pesquera popped up in the news again; he’s just been appointed the chief of police in his native Puerto Rico.
The universe continues to unfold…
And the Cuban Five remain stuck in the United States, four still in prison, one in the prison of parole.

It will not be easy to right this injustice, not in a country where in the past week the manager of a Miami baseball team was forced to make a groveling apology for offering the mildest of praise for Fidel Castro, and where the owner of a Miami restaurant faced anonymous threats because her restaurant just happened to be located on the ground floor of a building whose roof featured (however briefly) a billboard calling for Freedom for the Five.
Those prejudices and fears will be difficult to overcome. But they must be. And that’s why it’s especially important to make the case based on the facts.
I hope my forthcoming book, What Lies Across the Water: The Real Story of the Cuban Five, will contribute to that conversation.
We hear a lot these days about Alan Gross, a U.S. government contractor who is currently serving 15 years in a Cuban prison for smuggling illegal communications equipment into Cuba.
His supporters, like those of the Five, are demanding his release.

While the two cases are different in many important ways, the key reality is that the Cuban government is unlikely to consider releasing Alan Gross unless the U.S. government reciprocates by releasing the Cuban Five. And the U.S. government won’t release the Five without considerable public pressure.
That’s why those who are arguing Alan Gross’ case need to know about the Cuban Five.
They need to look beyond the rhetoric, both from supporters of the Five but also—and more importantly—from an American government that disingenuously insists the Five were somehow threatening U.S. security and responsible for the deaths of innocent civilians.
I will close with a quote from Jane Franklin, a widely respected expert on Cuban-American relations. She was responding to a recent column in the Washington Post in which Alan Gross’ wife, Judith, drew heartfelt but false parallels between her husband’s situation and that of the Five.
If she were Judith Gross, Franklin wrote, “I would study the cases of the Cuban Five to find out exactly how they came to be arrested, tried in Miami, convicted, and sent to separate prisons around the United States. Having come to grips with the outrageous injustice of their imprisonment, I would then commit my life to a campaign for releasing the Cuban Five in exchange for my husband Alan Gross.”
This essay is an abridged version of a talk by Stephen Kimber about his forthcoming book, What Lies Across the Water: The Real Story of the Cuban Five, on April 18, 2012 at the Center for International Policy in Washington, D.C.. 
STEPHEN KIMBER, a Professor of Journalism at the University of King’s College in Halifax, is an award-winning writer, editor and broadcaster. He is the author of one novel — Reparations — and seven non-fiction books.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

An Envoi for Christopher HitchensAt the Pearly Gates
On April 20 there’s a memorial for Christopher Hitchens at the Cooper Union in Manhattan. There’s a PEN tribute, also in Manhattan, on April 30.  Here’s my own little envoi. The regular Diary, tumbrils and all, will resume next week.

Antechamber to Heaven, a large reception room in the Baroque style. A door opens and an angel ushers in Christopher Hitchens, dressed in hospital clothing. The angel gestures for CH to take a seat. He is about to do so when he espies a familiar figure reading some newspapers.

CH   Dr. Kissinger! The very last person I would have expected to encounter here. All the more so, since I don’t recall any recent reports of your demise.
HK   You will no doubt be cast down by the news that I am indeed alive. This is a secret trip, to spy out the terrain diplomatically, assess the odds.
CH   You think you have the slightest chance of entering the celestial sphere?
HK   Everything is open to negotiation.
CH   Have you threatened to bomb Heaven — secretly of course?
HK   Very funny. As a matter of fact, Woytila — Pope John Paul II, I should say — has kindly offered to intercede at the highest level. And talking of negotiation, perhaps we could have a quiet word.
CH   What about?
HK   That worthless book you wrote about me — The Trial of Henry Kissinger. John Paul says that the prosecutors here have been using it in drawing up preliminary drafts of their case against me. Now, he also says it would be extraordinarily helpful if you would sign this affidavit — my lawyers have already prepared it — saying that you unconditionally withdraw the slurs and allegations, the baseless charges of war criminality, and attest under eternal pain of perjury that these were forced on you by your Harper’s editors.
CH   Dr Kissinger! Your idea is outrageous. I stand behind every word I wrote!
HK   Hmm. Too bad. After all, you certainly have experience in, how shall we say, adjusting sworn affidavits to changing circumstance. I believe Mr. Sidney Blumenthal could comment harshly on the matter.
CH   Dr. Kissinger, let me reiterate…
HK   My dear fellow, spare me your protestations. Let us consider the matter as mature adults — both of us, if I may say, now in potentially challenging circumstances.
CH   Speak for yourself, Dr. Kissinger. I do not recognize this as Heaven’s gate, or you as a genuine physical presence. I do not believe in the afterlife and therefore regard this as some last-second hallucination engendered in my brain in my room in M.D. Anderson hospital in Houston, Texas. I may be dying, but I am not dead yet. I have not dropped off the perch.
HK   Off the perch… How very English.  You will dismiss these as a mere last-second hallucination, a terminal orgy of self-flattery on your part, but (flourishes bundle of newspapers) The New York Times certainly thinks you’re dead. The Washington Post thinks you’re dead.
CH   Let me look at those… (snatches the papers from HK’s hand; skims them intently)
HK   Rather too flattering, if I may be frank. But, of course, as you say, all fantasy.
CH   They’re very concrete. Far more amiable than I would have dared to imagine…. I… I… (passes hand over brow) Is it possible to get a drink in this anteroom?
HK   Ah, after the soaring eagle of certainty, the fluttering magpie of doubt. I think we can bend the sumptuary laws a little (pulls a large flask from his pocket). Some schnapps?
CH   I would have preferred Johnnie Walker Black, but any port in a storm. (drinks)
HK   Bishop Berkeley, a philosopher, claimed, like you, that the world could be all in one’s imagination. It was your Doctor Samuel Johnson who sought to rebut Berkeley’s idealist theories by kicking a stone. And what did Dr. Johnson say when he kicked that stone?
CH   He said, “Sir, I refute it thus.”
HK   Precisely. Let the schnapps be your empirical stone. Now, if I may, let me continue with my proposition. As you know, you wrote another pamphlet, equally stuffed with lies and foul abuse, called The Missionary Position.
CH   Yes, a fine piece of work about that old slag, Mother Teresa.
HK   The “old slag”, as you ungallantly term the woman, is now part of an extremely influential faction in Heaven, including Pope John Paul II. Mother Teresa remains vexed by your portrait. She says it is in libraries and all over the Internet.  She, like me, would dearly love to see you make an unqualified retraction of your slurs.
CH   And that, of course, I will not do!
HK   You’re aware of the fate of Giordano Bruno?
CH   Certainly. One of reason’s noblest martyrs. Burned at the stake in the Campo de Fiore in Rome in 1600 for heresy. He insisted, with Copernicus, that the earth revolves around the sun and that the universe is infinite.
HK   Quite so. A noble end, but an extremely painful one. Perhaps, with Satanic assistance, I can remind you of it.
He claps his hands, and two fallen angels in black robes draw open a pair of heavy red velvet curtains at the far end of the room. HK makes a theatrical bow and motions CH forward. The latter edges near the space are now suffused with leaping flames. For a brief moment there’s a ghastly wailing, and CH leaps back into the room.
CH   Great God!
HK   You seem to have reverted to religious belief with startling speed.
CH   No, no. It was purely a façon de parler. Not a pretty sight.
HK   But in your view, a pure hallucination, nein? No need to kick the stone, like Dr. Johnson.
Before CH can answer, the fallen angels seize him and start dragging him toward the open curtains. They are about to hurl him into the pit, when…
ST. MICHAEL (suddenly appearing through the gates of Heaven)   Stop!
He hands CH and HK tickets.
These are one-day passes to Heaven. In Mr. Hitchens’ case, for purposes of interrogation by the Board of Inquiry and Final Judgment.
Exeunt St. Michael, HK and CH through ornate gilded doors to Heaven. 

Heaven. A vast Baroque gallery, in which an animated throng is enjoying itself in something closely resembling a cocktail party.
ST. MICHAEL   We’ve just remodeled. Before, we had something in the Gothic style, but the feeling was that in keeping with the times there should be more gold, more sense of extravagant illusion. And that of course brought us to the Baroque. You will no doubt detect many echoes of the Palazzo Colonna in Rome.
HK   I think I see His Holiness John Paul II, over there. With your permission, I might have a word?
ST. MICHAEL   Of course. And Mr. Hitchens, before we get to the Board of Inquiry, I’m sure there are some immortals you’d like to tip your hat to.
CH   The hat is all very well, but….
ST. MICHAEL   How forgetful of me! In general we’re an abstemious crowd here, but there’s no ban on moderate enjoyment.
A cherub swoops down, proffering a well-stocked tray.
CH   (gulping down one glass quickly and taking another)  Angel!
POPE PIUS V (joining the group)  Michael, I couldn’t help overhearing your reference to the Palazzo Colonna, built in the late seventeenth century, and of course memorable for the marvelous depictions on the ceiling of its Grand Gallery of the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, our Holy League’s historic defeat of the Ottomans.
CH   Ha! The wily Turk, lurking like a cobra ’midst the fairest flowers of God’s creation, lies ever ready to pounce upon the unsuspecting traveler and bugg…
PIUS V   I don’t believe I’ve had the honor.
ST. MICHAEL   This is Mr. Hitchens, a British-American writer here on a possibly brief visit. And (to CH) this is St. Pius V, who indeed occupied the Holy See at the time of Lepanto.
CH  (theatrical bow)  The honor is mine.
PIUS V   Those were the days, when the wind was truly at our backs!  210 ships of the Ottoman armada — almost their entire fleet — sent to the bottom of the Gulf of Patras; the Counter Reformation in full spate; the Council of Trent a magnificent success; heresy confronted and extirpated by our Inquisitors.
CH   The screams of their victims no doubt inaudible amid the general brays of triumph.
PIUS V   Speaking as a former Inquisitor, let me say that by modern standards of bloodshed consequent upon religious or ideological conflicts, the number of those who perished by reason of their adamant heresy was startlingly small. Have you kept up with recent scholarship on the topic? I thought not. Out of 62,000 cases judged by the Inquisition in Italy after 1542, only 1,250 ended with death sentences. The Spanish Inquisition held an average of 350 trials a year between 1560-1700 and executed between 3,000 and 5,000 people.
CH (snatching two more glasses from the tray of a passing cherub)  I do not propose to stand silently here, your so-called Holiness, and endure from a dotard in a white petticoat filthy apologias for atrocious barbarism in the name of his so-called God.
ST. MICHAEL   Mr. Hitchens! I suggest you moderate your language immediately.
PIUS V (walking away)  Brutto insolente, ignorante, ubriacone pieno di merda!
MOTHER TERESA (approaching, with Pope John Paul II; HK lurking discreetly)  Brutto insolente, indeed! Mr. Hitchens, I understand from Dr. Kissinger that you are prepared to repudiate your libels upon me.
CH   Certainly not.
JOHN PAUL II   But why not? After all, your arguments against the Blessed Teresa were either trivial or absurd, and in all instances morally odious. To focus on the latter: by 1996, the Blessed Teresa was operating 517 missions in more than 100 countries. And you, what were you doing for the poor? Would a starving person near death be more likely to get a bowl of soup or shelter from the Blessed Teresa or from Christopher Hitchens?
CH   I have never had pretensions to be in the professional charity business.
MALCOLM MUGGERIDGE   If I may intrude. Of course, as a great admirer of Mother Teresa, I was in receipt of Mr. Hitchens’ barbs, so I do speak as a biased witness. I regard it as truly extraordinary that while Mr. Hitchens was blithely ladling his sewage over our heads, he was — as a sometime US correspondent, I have followed these matters closely from here in Heaven — a fierce and influential advocate of one of the most violent onslaughts on the poor in recent historical memory: first, the sanctions on Iraq, which caused untold misery to Iraq’s poorest citizens; then the actual attack of 2003, which eventually prompted the deaths of over a million Iraqis and a crisis that still virtually paralyses that wretched nation.
CH   I would not change a syllable of what I wrote.
MM   Worse still — I speak also as someone who reported from the Soviet Union during Stalin’s rule — Mr. Hitchens displayed himself as a craven apparatchik of the Bush White House, actually going to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue the night before the invasion to give a pep talk to the President’s staff about their noble mission.
Since Beatrice Webb was my wife’s aunt, I am intimately familiar with the follies of socialists. You, in your contempt for  “lesser” cultures, remind me of the German social democrat Eduard Bernstein, who argued that to oppose Rhodes’s suppression of the Matabele uprising was to oppose “the spread of civilization”, and that “the higher culture always has the greater right on its side over the lower; if necessary it has the historical right, yea, the duty, to subjugate it.”
CH   The mission to Baghdad was noble: the eviction of a filthy tyrant…
MM   …was worth the denial of medicine and medical equipment for babies, the forcing of hundreds of thousands of poor Iraqis into near starvation, the creation of millions of internal refugees plus those who managed to flee the country, the unleashing of sectarian bloodshed on an unparalleled scale? Just so that your hero, Tony Blair, and your supreme leader, Mr. Bush, could boast, “Mission Accomplished”?
CH   Since His Holiness St. Pius V, who has departed the field of disputation, was invoking the Battle of Lepanto, I’m surprised not to hear any parallels drawn between that engagement and the Crusade against Islam, of which the war in Iraq — and the terror axis of Hussein and Osama — was a significant element.
MM   You mean your precious crusade against so-called “Islamo-fascism”, the bizarre coinage of a Trotskyite, such as you once were? Lepanto at least saw the Ottoman armada, and the unfortunate slaves who rowed their galleys, sent to the bottom of the sea. Your crusade in Iraq saw the triumph of the Shi’a, and a significant victory for Iran. With Vice President Cheney you must be the last two men alive who believe in the Hussein/Osama axis.
JOHN PAUL II   The Holy See strongly opposed the war. Before it began, I sent Cardinal Pio Laghi to tell Bush it would be a disaster and would destroy human life. The war was useless, served no purpose and was a defeat for humanity. Such was my view, which was the recorded opinion of the Holy See.
MM   Surely, a more humane posture than your own hosannas to cluster bombs: “Those steel pellets will go straight through somebody and out the other side and through somebody else. So they won’t be able to say, ‘Ah, I was bearing a Koran over my heart and, guess what, the missile stopped halfway through.’ No way, ’cause it’ll go straight through that as well. They’ll be dead, in other words.”
CH   Rather well put, if I say so myself.
MM   You are impervious to rebuke, which is not surprising, since if one rebuke is let in the door, it can usher in another, and then some serious inner reflection may become unavoidable. As Cardinal Newman put it, “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”
CH   Newman, that old queen!
MM   Like St. Pius, I’ll quit the field now, but let me return to something His Holiness John Paul II said. “Would a starving person near death be more likely to get a bowl of soup or shelter from the Blessed Teresa or from Christopher Hitchens?”
What has constantly struck me is the desolate sterility of your atheism. We had atheists in our generation, of course, but they lived in a world and consorted with people for whom religion had profound meaning, often inspiring them to acts of nobility and extraordinary self-sacrifice. In your book, religious people are stupid. But they weren’t stupid, and the atheists — I’m thinking of my dear friend, a man you profess to have admired, Claud Cockburn — didn’t deride them, but cheerfully swapped quotations from the Sermon on the Mount. The context was one of respect and mutual striving for a better world.
What sort of moral leadership did you, the great and ultimately rather wealthy exponent of atheism display? Extreme disloyalty to close friends, constant public drunkenness and brutish rudeness, particularly to women,  and a life, if I may say so, of almost psychotic self-centeredness and exhibitionism. You had your claque — Messrs Amis, Fenton and the others — and their energies in promoting you as a major intellectual and stylist were unceasing, and in their somewhat homoerotic loyalty, rather touching, but I don’t think the verdict of history will be quite so kind.

Antechamber to Heaven.  CH is sitting on a bench. Door opens and St. Michael bids HK a cheerful goodbye.
HK   Mr. Hitchens. You seem somewhat subdued. (proffering flask) A little schnapps?
CH   My dear fellow! (drinks deeply) You arranged your affairs successfully?
HK   Entirely so. In large part owing to you. Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa, not to mention St. Pius V, were so shocked by your views and by your language that they entirely discounted the charges you leveled against me, and believe me to have been vilely traduced.
CH   I suppose I should be glad to have been of service. But let me ask a question: since you are Jewish, why would you be taking such trouble to build up contacts in what is clearly a Christian Heaven?
HK   Between ourselves, I am preparing for a final conversion and absolution. Jews are vague about heaven and, after a lifetime’s observation, I am inclined to think that the atmosphere in Gehenna would be extremely acrimonious. Your plans?
CH   Once again, I feel it necessary to insist that I do not recognize myself as being in Heaven, or disputing with a sixteenth-century pope, or indeed being reprimanded by St. Michael and Malcolm Muggeridge. Or talking affably with Henry Kissinger. So, please, regard this as ongoing cerebral activity on the part of C.H. Hitchens, patient at M.D. Anderson.
HK   As you wish. But here, (slips him the flask) just remember Dr. Johnson’s stone. Farewell, my friend.
Lights fade to a dark red.
Alexander Cockburn can be reached at

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Banking on the Bomb

The Nuclear Weapons Industry & Its Financial Backers

“Most financial institutions don’t consider the social and environmental consequences of their investments. Unless members speak up and take action, they’re unlikely to take ethical considerations into account. Our research shows that teachers’ pension funds in the United States, Canada and Britain invest heavily in companies involved in the nuclear weapons industry. Yet polls show that teachers — the guardians of our future, in many ways — are overwhelmingly opposed to nuclear weapons. Through their daily work, teachers promote understanding, tolerance and cooperation. Nuclear weapons are the very antithesis of these virtues. Teachers should refuse to have their retirement savings invested in this horrible industry.”
– Daniela Varano International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.
“TIAA-CREF declines to comment.” 
The most open and forthright firm on this matter has been TIAA-CREF. Though they will be in the firing line they have tried to make decent investments.
The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons released an eye-popping report on 5 March 2012 titled Don’t Bank on the Bomb. In that report are listings of banks, financial institutions and funds that, in some form, fund the research, design, development, production, deployment and maintenance of nuclear weapons.
Nobel Laureate Bishop Desmond Tutu penned the introduction to the report. He indicated that battling against the entrenched interests (government/military and banks/financial firms) that sustain nuclear weapons and fund their modernization will be a long and arduous struggle. But he points to the model of boycott and disinvestment used to pressure the apartheid government of South Africa as both inspiring and successful.
“Banks and other financial institutions should be called upon to do the right thing and assist, rather than impede, efforts to eliminate the threat of radioactive incineration by divesting from the immoral nuclear arms industry. In the long struggle to end racial segregation in South Africa, our freedom was won with the help of concerned individuals around the world who pressured their leaders and corporate actors to stop funding the racist regime. To those who invested in our country, we said: you are doing us no favor; you are buttressing one of the most vicious systems. Divestment was vital in the campaign to end apartheid in South Africa. Today, the same tactic can – and must – be employed to challenge man’s most evil creation: the nuclear bomb. No one should be profiting from this terrible industry of death, which threatens us all.”
Teach Your Children Well
Don’t Bank on the Bomb offers a treasure trove of data on the financial institutions that invest either directly or tangentially in the nuclear weapons industry. Some financial entities referenced are surprising. One of those is TIAA-CREF which the report describes as “TIAA-CREF: Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association,  College  Retirement Equities Fund is a financial services organization that is the leading retirement provider for people who work in the academic, research, medical and cultural fields. It has US$453 billion in combined assets under management, reported revenue of US$32.22 billion in 2010 and employs 7,200 people. It has major offices in Denver, Charlotte and Dallas as well as 70 local offices throughout the United States. It invests in: Alliant Tech Systems, Babcock & Wilcox, BAE Systems, Boeing, General Dynamics, Finmeccanica, GenCorp, Honeywell International, Jacobs Engineering, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman.”
TIAA-CREF manages the funds for thousands of K-12, college and graduate school educators in public and private/parochial-religious educational institutions across the United States. Arguably ironic, and certainly contradictory,  is that religious affiliated schools, whose leadership preaches peace and cultural unity at home and abroad, find that their retirement funds depend, in part, on the financial performance of the nuclear weapons industry and military strategists in Washington, DC, Moscow, Beijing, Tel Aviv, London, Delhi and Islamabad.
Landmines and Nukes
The International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) recently celebrated its 13th Anniversary in March 2012. Next to Bishop Tutu’s South Africa boycott and disinvestment model stands the ICBL’s tireless effort to ban the use of landmines around the world. The grassroots organization was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its work which culminated in the signing of the Mine Ban Treaty in “Ottawa, Canada, on 3 December 1997. It entered into force less than two years later, more quickly than any treaty of its kind in history.”
Unfortunately, the flaw in ICBL’s model is that the United States of America and 36 other countries refuse to become parties to the treaty. The USA has splendid company that includes Russia, China, Israel, India and Pakistan. Coincidently, these are the same countries that hold the world’s largest arsenals of nuclear weapons (the UK has signed the Ban Mine Treaty). If these countries are not willing to forsake the use of landmines, then the prospects for eliminating nuclear weapons seems dismal.
At the moment, President Obama has requested $11.5 billion for the FY2013 budget for the National Nuclear Security Administration. Only $2.5 billion of that amount is directed to nonproliferation with the remainder to be funneled to national security purposes.
Religion’s Role
For FY2012, according to the Arms Control Association, the situation was this: “The United States military maintains a modern arsenal of 1,790 deployed strategic nuclear warheads, according to the September 2011 accounting under the New START treaty. These warheads are deployed on Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs), and Strategic Bombers. The Departments of Defense and Energy currently spend approximately $31 billion per year to maintain and upgrade these systems. For Fiscal Year (FY) 2012, the Obama administration is requesting $7.6 billion in funding for weapons activities in the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which oversees the U.S. nuclear stockpile and production complex, a 10 percent increase over the FY 2011 appropriation of $6.9 billion.
In the next four years NNSA plans to spend $9.6 billion on maintaining, securing, and modernizing the nuclear stockpile, and $34 billion on all of its weapons activities programs.  The U.S. military is in the process of modernizing all of its existing strategic delivery systems and refurbishing the warheads they carry to last for the next 20-30 years or more. These systems are in many cases being completely rebuilt with essentially all new parts.”
And that’s big business.
Perhaps some flavor of religion as a stimulant to mobilize a campaign against nuclear weapons development and their haunting presence is necessary. Bishop Tutu is correct, of course. And so is the Ayatollah Khamenei, “…the Islamic Republic, logically, religiously and theoretically, considers the possession of nuclear weapons a grave sin and believes the proliferation of such weapons is senseless, destructive and dangerous.”
John Stanton is a Virginia based writer specializing in national security matters. Reach him at

The Blood on Stratfor’s Hands

Intelligence for the Highest Bidder
by KHADIJA SHARIFE, Counterpunch

Even if we were to place epistemological and ethical questions aside, certain Stratfor’s analysts are turning out to be rather twisted creatures.
While some turn party tricks for intelligence, except in AIDS-infested Africa, others, such as Fred Burton – a counter-terrorism and security expert, alleged to frequently service US intelligence, are a tad aggressive. One of Fred’s gems include: “The owner is a peacenik. He needs his head dunked in a full toilet bowl at Gitmo.”
So much for niceties.
But beyond the flippant remarks (and who isn’t facetious from time to time?) there exists a more dangerous reality: Stratfor – as evidenced by  their own content – is neither a politically nor ideologically neutral intelligence agency.
They have clearly picked a side.
When analyst Lauren Goodrich had lunch with former Federal Judge Sam Kent, found guilty of consensual sexual misconduct and perjury, she tried to convince him that Halliburton – a company he ruled a major case against – was not responsible for his suffering.  “Isn’t it strange that the Justice Department begins sniffing around for dirt to throw at me just weeks after I ruled a heavy case against Halliburton. Then a small set of affairs turn into an untrue situation and then spun up into an unprecedented case against a Federal Judge,” asked Kent.
“Of course, I told him he was nuts to rule anything against Halliburton. I also told him that this sounds like a John Grisham plotline,” responded Goodrich. Allegedly, Halliburton – like Lockheed Martin and others, is a client.
Similarly, Stratfor’s internal narrative reveals that organizations such as International Rivers (one email promoting Nnimmo Bassey’s new mega-dam video was listed) are monitored. There is nothing wrong with this.
It is their intent that matters.
Clients from Coca-Cola and Dow Chemicals frequently dole out cash, around $8000 per average report, to investigate civil society ‘opponents’ from PETA to comedy spoof crew, the Yes Men. And the latter is one example of why and where Stratfor gets really dirty: the company was paid to spy on activists protesting the gas leak from Union Carbide’s Bhopal pesticide plant (1984), considered one of the world’s worst industrial catastrophes, causing mass environmental damage, killing over 15 000 people and injuring 500 000 others.
In one fundamental sense, there is no such thing as objectivity. Humans are essentially subjective beings, and even if one were to consciously engage an issue from a perceived neutral stance, the habitus of personal development (absorbed, learned, or acquired) extending from ideological collective myths to class aesthetics, comes to the fore of man’s identity.
And vulgarity is cultivated, through tribalism, nationalism, ethnicity, religion and culture, rather than weeded out. Modern civilisation, rooted in amoral scientificity, tells us that ethical behaviour is relative and not a ‘factual’ reality. Capitalism tells us that man operates from the premise of self-interest.
But history – and our own innate nature – tells us otherwise.
Wars may be the delusional and dangerous creatures of politicians but most humans join these bloody battlefields, going to certain death or worse – an injured life – driven by the urge  to defend and protect; to fight the good fight. They may not understand the reality of it, but in their own minds, they are doing the right thing. And never are such men more inspired than when their leaders lead from the front. What men like South Africa’s heroic Mandela have showed us, is that humans are willing to put life, aside, for what they believe to be a just cause, especially when led by a seemingly just leader.
This is why Hollywood movies, with their fairy-tale endings, are so successful: never do we, as individual or collective audiences, honor or respect a human being more than when he rises above the worst, to become his best.
So, when indifference to the destruction of what is irreplaceable, for something as common as money constitutes the core foundation of intelligence agencies – the microcosms of the forces that drive foreign policy – and this indifference, as Balzac noted in Lost Illusions, deadens the world, it is no wonder that the world is in a state of hell.
With their emails, Stratfor appears to advocate for a world where polluters and murderers, circumvent accountability by obtaining information to pre-empt – and in the process destroy – their opposition. And this is the rule, rather than the exception, for any agency gathering intelligence for the highest bidder.
In this sense, it is a company with blood on their hands.

Khadija Sharife is a journalist; visiting scholar at the Center for Civil Society (CCS) based in South Africa and contributor to the Tax Justice Network. She is the Southern Africa correspondent for The Africa Report magazine, assistant editor of the Harvard “World Poverty and Human Rights” journal and author of Tax Us If You Can (Africa). 
This article originally appeared in Africa Report.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Face-to-Face with the NYPD

What They Look Like to a Guinean American

“It is far more important to hold accountable the enforcers of the law than the perpetrators because if you don’t, you will have a nation of warlords.
– Mahmood Mamdani.
New York’s Finest (also known as the NYPD) have come under a lot of scrutiny since activists from the Occupy Wall Street Movement took to the streets of New York City on September 17, 2011. From the pepper spraying videos on YouTube to the massive arrests, the brutality of the NYPD has shocked many. However, this only comes as a shock to those who never before had to deal with a police force inspired by a culture of brutality that encourages police officers to instill fear and contempt in those whom they are supposed to serve and protect. From the yellowcab driver, to the street vendor and from the high school students in working class neighborhoods to young men in Harlem, Brooklyn and the Bronx, this culture of unprofessionalism, fear and brutality is a daily occurrence. What Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Kelly call the “best police force in the world,” whose mission is to “preserve the peace, reduce fear and provide for a safe environment,” has in fact been the greatest fear factor in many communities.

Under Commissioner Kelly, the policy of “Stop, Question and Frisk” was expanded – giving NYPD officers the authority to stop civilians, question and search them. Officers will then proceed to enter the names of those searched into a database, which they claim is “valuable in helping solve future crimes.” The reason for the stops, you might ask? “Because you fit a description,” as I was told following a search where the officers did not ask me a single question. I will give details of my encounter later.

The “Stop and Frisk” policy has systematically terrorized and humiliated young men of color, especially those living in working class neighborhoods in New York City, from Harlem to Brownsville.  The NYPD continues on a daily basis to disrupt the lives of young men of color in this city through what has become an institutionalized approach stemming directly from a culture of brutality, take-no-prisoners and shoot-now-and-ask-questions-later attitude under the false presumption of “crime prevention.” One of the many successes of the Occupy Wall Street movement is in its exposure of this culture of brutality, disrespect and unprofessionalism of New York’s Finest to the general public. Indeed, over the last few months, the world has seen what has long since been the reality of many young men in New York City: the police officer acting with impunity, knowing that they’ll be protected as they brutally assault peaceful civilians.

In response to the media attention that these police altercations with peaceful protestors received, the NYPD aggressively mischaracterized these incidents with mere fabrications. When Brooklyn Councilman Jumaane Williams was thrown to the ground, along with his aide, and handcuffed during the West Indian Day Parade, the NYPD immediately responded that “a crowd formed and an unknown individual punched a police captain on the scene,” suggesting that somehow the councilman had been part of that crowd. We witnessed the same level of denial on behalf of the police when Deputy Inspector Bologna, a repeat offender, indiscriminately pepper sprayed into a crowd of peaceful female protesters. The Department immediately rose to the officer’s defense, claiming rather forcefully that the office did nothing wrong and that the use of pepper spray was “appropriate.” The Deputy Inspector (the “white shirt”) was punished: a loss of ten vacation days.

In NYC, there are endless examples of police brutality. The NYPD has managed to create an environment of fear in many neighborhoods in New York City and they do so with impunity. Commissioner Kelly said that he wants to instill fear in young blacks and Hispanics. In a private meeting, the Commissioner told lawmakers, “the reason we stop and frisk and target the groups that we do is because we want all people who fit that group to feel that anytime they leave their house they can be searched by the police.” Walking down the street in my neighborhood today, I know that this is what I can expect. The nakedness and constant fear that one feels knowing that at any moment a group of police officers, whether in uniform or in plain clothes, can approach you, take your identification and pat you down, is overwhelming.

This reality was brought close to home for me four years ago when I came home for winter break during my first semester in college. I was walking to the subway from my apartment in Brooklyn, when I was approached by two undercover police officers. “Spread your legs and place your hands behind your head,” they shouted, running out of an unmarked police car. I was with my cousin at the time, who simply responded to the command as if it was second nature – this was not his first time. I, on the other hand, was home from my first semester in college and after having just completed a seminar entitled “Debating Human Rights,” I naively thought I should demand the reason for my search and debate with the officers. But before I could utter a word, the officers went ahead and patted both of us down and asked for our IDs. “Can I ask why we are being searched?” I asked. My request went ignored, as we were never given a reason for the search. Before we could even ask for their badge numbers, one of the officers handed me my ID and wished me a “happy birthday.” The experience left me distraught. After consulting with a friend, I decided the next day to call my local precinct to notify them of the incident and file a complaint. I was surprised when the operator informed me that the officers reported the search, claiming that the reason was because my cousin and I “fit a description.”

Human rights organizations, activists and lawmakers and other concerned citizens continue to work tirelessly to bring an end to the constant fear tactics many citizens are submitted to at the hands of the NYPD.  They are demanding that some checks and balances be instituted in order to reel in the power of the police, and increase transparency in their interactions with citizens. Legal Aid and the NAACP pleaded with lawmakers to intervene during a City Council Hearing on September 27. Despite the efforts of the Council members, their requests have all been ignored. To be fair, my criticism of the NYPD is not directed at the poorly trained police officers caught up in a corrupt, arrogant and unethical system of criminal injustice.

There are indeed hardworking police officers struggling to just get by. These officers do not set the culture of the NYPD; rather their actions simply reproduce an offensive culture that is shaped from upstairs: a culture which supports, defends and encourages, a police officer to pepper spray, punch and beat peaceful protesters. There is something fundamentally wrong with a system in which officers can stop and search innocent civilians because they fit a “description,” meaning that they are Black or Latino. There is more to it than the individual actions of any one police officer raping a woman at gun point, or lodging dozens of bullets in the bodies of innocent New Yorkers such as Sean Bell and my fellow countryman Amadou Diallo. There are systemic abuses in the NYPD and it is no surprise to those who live it or have been paying attention.

Ibrahim Diallo is a Guinean-American living in New York City.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Bill Quigley: Time for US Revolution - Fifteen Reasons

Bill Quigley: Time for US Revolution - Fifteen Reasons

It is time for a revolution. Government does not work for regular people. It appears to work quite well for big corporations, banks, insurance companies, military contractors, lobbyists, and for the rich and powerful. But it does not work for people.

The 1776 Declaration of Independence stated that when a long train of abuses by those in power evidence a design to reduce the rights of people to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, it is the peoples right, in fact their duty to engage in a revolution.

Martin Luther King, Jr., said forty three years ago next month that it was time for a radical revolution of values in the United States. He preached "a true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies." It is clearer than ever that now is the time for radical change.

Look at what our current system has brought us and ask if it is time for a revolution?

Over 2.8 million people lost their homes in 2009 to foreclosure or bank repossessions - nearly 8000 each day - higher numbers than the last two years when millions of others also lost their homes.

At the same time, the government bailed out Bank of America, Citigroup, AIG, Bear Stearns, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, the auto industry and enacted the troubled asset (TARP) program with $1.7 trillion of our money.

Wall Street then awarded itself over $20 billion in bonuses in 2009 alone, an average bonus on top of pay of $123,000.

At the same time, over 17 million people are jobless right now. Millions more are working part-time when they want and need to be working full-time.

Yet the current system allows one single U.S. Senator to stop unemployment and Medicare benefits being paid to millions.

There are now 35 registered lobbyists in Washington DC for every single member of the Senate and House of Representatives, at last count 13,739 in 2009. There are eight lobbyists for every member of Congress working on the health care fiasco alone.

At the same time, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that corporations now have a constitutional right to interfere with elections by pouring money into races.

The Department of Justice gave a get out of jail free card to its own lawyers who authorized illegal torture.

At the same time another department of government, the Pentagon, is prosecuting Navy SEALS for punching an Iraqi suspect.

The US is not only involved in senseless wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the U.S. now maintains 700 military bases world-wide and another 6000 in the US and our territories. Young men and women join the military to protect the U.S. and to get college tuition and healthcare coverage and killed and maimed in elective wars and being the world's police. Wonder whose assets they are protecting and serving?

In fact, the U.S. spends $700 billion directly on military per year, half the military spending of the entire world - much more than Europe, China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan, North Korea, and Venezuela - combined.

The government and private companies have dramatically increased surveillance of people through cameras on public streets and private places, airport searches, phone intercepts, access to personal computers, and compilation of records from credit card purchases, computer views of sites, and travel.

The number of people in jails and prisons in the U.S. has risen sevenfold since 1970 to over 2.3 million. The US puts a higher percentage of our people in jail than any other country in the world.

The tea party people are mad at the Republicans, who they accuse of selling them out to big businesses.

Democrats are working their way past depression to anger because their party, despite majorities in the House and Senate, has not made significant advances for immigrants, or women, or unions, or African Americans, or environmentalists, or gays and lesbians, or civil libertarians, or people dedicated to health care, or human rights, or jobs or housing or economic justice. Democrats also think their party is selling out to big business.

Forty three years ago next month, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached in Riverside Church in New York City that "a time comes when silence is betrayal." He went on to condemn the Vietnam War and the system which created it and the other injustices clearly apparent. "We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a "thing oriented" society to a "person oriented" society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered."

It is time.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Save the Economy, Hike the Deficit!

May 27 - 29, 2011
Careening Toward a Third Depression

How do you light a fire under Congress? How do you get these guys to do what they're paid to do?

We're 5 years into this slump, millions of people have lost their homes and jobs, 44 million people are on food stamps, the economy is in the tank, and congress won't lift a finger to help. What's that all about? You'd think that the revision in GDP and the uptick in unemployment claims would set off alarms on Capitol Hill. But it hasn't. They just shrug it off and move on. What do they care? They get their fat paycheck one way or another, so what difference does it make to them? Besides, if they play their cards right, they'll nab a 6-figure lobbying job as soon as they retire and spend the rest of their lives working on their chip-shot and swilling single-malt at the club with their moneybags friends. Doesn't that piss you off?

Congress just doesn't seem to "get it". They don't understand what people are going through; how maxed out they are. We're in the middle of a Depression and all they want to do is score points playing political circlejerk by stonewalling the debt ceiling or jacking-around with Medicare. Meanwhile, unemployment is on the rise (Initial claims rose to 424,000 on Thursday), GDP is falling (1Q GDP revised to 1.8%), durable goods are down 3.6 percent in April, the market is topping out, business investment is flat, Europe's on the ropes, Japan is in a historic slump, China is overheating, the output gap is as wide as it was 6 quarters ago, bank balance sheets are bleeding red from falling home prices and non-performing loans, and the housing market is crashing.

Did I miss something?

Oh yeah, and the Fed's goofy QE2 program is winding down, which means that the last drop of monetary stimulus will be wrung-out by the end of June. That ought to be good for stocks.

So, excuse me for asking, Mr. Bigshot Congressman, but would you mind lending a hand? A little stimulus would be nice. You know, just enough so we can get a job and feed the kids. And if you're worried about the deficits; don't be. They're not a problem. That's just more GOP scaremongering. Here's how economics professor Bradford DeLong sums it up:

"The biggest problem generated by this right now is that Washington DC's focus on the Dingbat Kabuki theater of the long-run fiscal stability of America is keeping it from taking any effective steps to use government to boost employment and output now. And things aren't helped by the fact that the way the rescue of the banking system was carried out convinced a lot of people that stimulus policies exist to enrich the top 1% of Americans at the expense of everybody else.

This means that our hopes for economic recovery right now rest not on any government boost to aggregate demand--whether through fiscal, monetary, or banking policy--but rather on the natural equilibrium-restoring full-employment achieving market forces of the economy, especially in the labor market.

And so we are in trouble: right now there are no signs that the economy is crawling up back to anything like full employment on its own. ... The economy will grow, but we won't close the gap between actual and potential output. We will not for a long time to come get back to the 62 to 64% of the adult population having jobs that we thought was normal back in the decades of the 2000.

And that is the depressing overall macroeconomic picture. I wish I could paint a better one....("DeLong: The Economic Outlook as of May 2011", Economist's View)

Deficits aren't the problem, they're the solution. The government needs to increase spending to make up for the loss of activity in the private sector, otherwise, we're back in the soup. But, here's the good part; the government can borrow at rates that are lower than ever. Just look at the bond market. The 10-year is stuck at 3.12. That means that money is cheap because no one is borrowing, because, well, because the economy is dead-in-the-water. It's like Treasuries are yelling, "Wake up, you idiots, we're in a Depression!"

Besides, deficit spending isn't always a bad thing anyway. Just ask a guy who's been out of work for 99 weeks how much he cares about deficits. Not much, I'll bet. All he cares about is getting a job and paying the bills. Here's a clip from economist Mark Thoma who explains how deficits can actually rev up the economy:

"When the economy goes into recession, deficit spending through tax cuts or the purchase of goods and services by the government can stop the downward spiral and help to turn the economy back around. Thus, deficits can help us to stabilize the economy. In addition, as the economy improves due to the deficit spending the outlook for businesses also improves, and this can lead to increased investment, an effect known as crowding in. Deficits also allow us to purchase infrastructure and spread the bills across time similar to the way households finance the purchase of a car or house, or the way local governments finance schools with bond issues." (Government Deficits: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Mark Thoma, CBS Moneywatch)

Deficits are just a way of investing in the future, like student loans. You don't hear anyone crybabying about paying for college, do you? No, because it improves their chances for making more money in the future. Sometimes you have to take on a little debt to create better opportunities for yourself. That's just the way it is. It's the same with the economy, the deficits are a bridge to the next credit expansion. But once things are up-and-running and revenues increase, then the government can throttle-back on spending and balance the budget. That's how we've always done it in the past, until we started listening to the Voodoo crackpots, that is. Besides, if we don't increase the deficits now and put people back to work fast, we're going to be stuck in this "underperforming" funk for a very long time. So, we're just shooting ourselves in the foot.

How did we get to where we are today?

Well, when the financial system crashed, the economy plunged and then reset at a lower level of output. So--while we're no longer in freefall--we're still no where near where we should be. And, guess what, we can't get back to trend when 9% of the workforce (16.5% underemployed) is on the sidelines. We have to put people back to work and get them spending. That's the only way to boost demand and kickstart the economy. Of course, big business doesn't mind the current policy, because more of the profits from productivity go to them during a sluggish recovery. So, they're just fine with the way things are right now. They also like the fact that high unemployment puts more pressure on wages. CEO's love that part.

So, how dire is the situation right now?

Well, consider this: QE2 ends on June 30, right? But according to economist David Rosenberg, there's a "89% correlation between the Fed's balance sheet and the movements in the S&P 500 over the past two years." So when the Fed stops purchasing US Treasuries, then stocks will retreat.

Add that to the fact that the states are cutting costs and laying off state workers at record pace to balance their budgets. That just increases deflationary pressures. When money is drained from the system, activity slows, demand weakens, revenues shrink, deficits bulge, and more people are laid off. It's a vicious circle.

Here's how Paul Krugman breaks it down on his blog this week:

"Last year I warned that we seemed to be heading into the "Third Depression" — by which I meant a prolonged period of economic weakness:

' Neither the Long Depression of the 19th century nor the Great Depression of the 20th was an era of nonstop decline — on the contrary, both included periods when the economy grew. But these episodes of improvement were never enough to undo the damage from the initial slump, and were followed by relapses.

We are now, I fear, in the early stages of a third depression. It will probably look more like the Long Depression than the much more severe Great Depression. But the cost — to the world economy and, above all, to the millions of lives blighted by the absence of jobs — will nonetheless be immense.'.....

And nobody in power cares! (Third Depression Watch, Paul Krugman, New York Times)

And that's what makes this political burlesque on Capitoll Hill so excruciating to watch, because it's such a waste. Peoples lives are being ruined for nothing, just because Congress doesn't have the courage to do the right thing. Do you think they'd hesitate if they had to pony-up for another multi-billion dollar weapons system, or another bailout for Wall Street, or more tax cuts for their tycoon friends? Of course not. The only time congress worries about red ink is when it might help working people. Then they throw a major hissyfit, waving their hands overhead and babbling hysterically about the free market. Give me a break. The world's not going to end. The truth is, the rest of the world WANTS us to borrow more because they want to maintain strong demand for their exports and keep their workers busy. That's why they're willing to lend us money so cheap.

So, why don't we oblige them? Why don't we borrow enough money to whittle down unemployment to 4 or 5% and get back on track? After all, we know that fiscal stimulus works, because the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released another report on Wednesday saying that Obama's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) was a booming success.

Here's a clip from the report:

"The economic stimulus package passed by Congress in 2009 raised gross domestic product, created jobs and helped lower the country's unemployment rate this year..... the Congressional Budget Office said Wednesday.

The Obama administration and Congressional Democrats said the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, passed while the U.S. struggled to emerge from a severe recession, would save or create 3.5 million jobs while cutting taxes, investing in roads, bridges and other infrastructure, extending unemployment benefits and expanding aid to states....

The CBO report out Wednesday said the plan increased the number of people employed by between 1.2 million and 3.3 million, and lowered the unemployment rate by between 0.6 and 1.8 percentage points in the first quarter of 2011.

The stimulus package also raised gross domestic product, the broadest measure of economic output, by between 1.1% and 3.1% in the same period...." ("CBO Says Stimulus Boosted Growth, Will Add More to Deficit", Wall Street Journal)

Okay, so ARRA boosted growth by roughly 2% and added about 2 million new jobs to the workforce just like the administration predicted. So, that settles it, right? We now have solid proof that the program worked, so what are we waiting for? Congress needs to push through a second round of stimulus, put people back to work and get the economy firing on all 6 cylinders. No more foot dragging.

Mike Whitney lives in Washington state. He can be reached at