Archive for December, 2019

The Afghanistan Papers Expose a History Of Lies – posted 12/28/2019 and published in the Concord Monitor on 1/16/2020

December 28, 2019 Leave a comment

During this primary season, foreign policy has been superficially discussed. With so many pressing domestic concerns, it is understandable. Still, foreign policy matters and the newly exposed Afghanistan Papers show why.

The American people have been systematically lied to for 18 years by our civilian and military leaders. We have been sold a false narrative of progress in Afghanistan. Even worse, our leaders have known that narrative was false but they have persisted with the lies.

The Washington Post recently reported on over 2000 pages of confidential government documents now in its possession about the war in Afghanistan. The documents include previously unpublished notes of interviews with people who played a direct role in the war, from generals and diplomats to aid workers and Afghan officials.

The Post won release of these documents, now known as the Afghanistan Papers, through a three year legal battle they fought under the Freedom of Information Act.

The documents the Post exposed come from the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, also known as SIGAR, a federal agency created by Congress in 2008 to investigate waste and fraud in the war zone. In 2014, SIGAR launched a Lessons Learned project meant to diagnose policy failures in Afghanistan. The Lessons Learned staff interviewed over 600 people with firsthand experience in the war.

The Post began seeking the Lessons Learned interviews in 2016. SIGAR refused disclosure, saying the documents were privileged. The Post then sued SIGAR in federal court to compel the release of documents.

SIGAR has now released the transcripts from 428 of the interviews as part of the 2000 pages released. This was before a court decision which is still pending in the federal court in Washington, DC.

The Afghanistan Papers show that the United States government officials have never had a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan. Douglas Lute, a three-star Army General who served as the White House’s Afghan war czar during the Bush and Obama administrations, told government interviewers in 2015:

“What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.”

There are good reasons Afghanistan has been called “the graveyard of empires” and the Learned Lesson interviews are illustrative. Our war fighting strategies were fatally flawed. Enormous sums of money were wasted trying to rebuild Afghanistan. The attempt to curtail runaway Afghan corruption failed as has the effort to build a competent Afghan army and police.

The Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani governments have been kleptocracies. The U.S. government threw vast sums of money their way and then acted surprised that corruption delegitimized their regimes. The Obama Administration essentially ignored Karzai ballot-stuffing his way to re-election in 2009.

I am not sure which regime was more corrupt, the old South Vietnamese government or our current Afghan partners, but both lacked legitimacy in the eyes of their respective masses. There was never a chance of winning hearts and minds.

All along, U.S. military commanders have struggled to articulate any clear rationale for why our troops were in Afghanistan. Craig Whitlock, a reporter from the Post put it this way:

“Was Al-Qaeda the enemy, or the Taliban? Was Pakistan a friend or an adversary? What about the Islamic State and the bewildering array of foreign jihadis, let alone the warlords on the CIA’s payroll? According to the documents, the U.S. government never settled on an answer.”

It has been impossible for U.S. troops to know who was a friend and who was a foe.

The cost has been astronomical. Since 2001, more than 775,000 U.S. troops have been deployed to Afghanistan, many repeatedly. Of these, 2300 died there and 20,589 were wounded in action. In the 18 years of the war, Neta Crawford, a professor at Brown University, calculated, with an inflation adjustment, that the Defense Department, the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development have spent or appropriated between $934 billion and $978 billion.

During the 18 years of the Afghanistan War, U.S. government officials, both civilian and military, have argued the war is going well, no matter the real battlefield situation. This has been equally true under George W. Bush, Obama, and Trump. Instead of any honest accounting, we have gotten rosy pronouncements they knew were false while they hid evidence the war was unwinnable.

John Sopko, the head of SIGAR, acknowledged to the Post that the documents show “the American people have consistently been lied to”.

Since the Afghanistan Papers were published, they have been compared to the Pentagon Papers and the comparison is valid. Both expose official lying. Both wars were and are quagmires with Afghanistan an even longer quagmire than Vietnam.

The problem though, as I see it, is that critical analysis stops there. Why the repetition compulsion with war? I agree with those who see the decision to invade Afghanistan as an essentially irrational, emotional response aimed at satisfying the collective psychological need for revenge for the 9/11 attacks.

Neither Republicans nor Democrats have critically evaluated this failure. The Trump Administration had promised to extricate the U.S. from Middle Eastern wars but they remain as sucked in as Bush and Obama were. Since early 2019, the U.S. has deployed roughly 14,000 more troops to the region.  This is a reversal of Trump’s promise to extricate.  Trump is now considering sending thousands more troops to the region to. counter the alleged threat from Iran.

For a long time, there has been a mistaken tendency to see Afghanistan as the good war and Iraq as the dumb war.

At a deeper level, we should be examining the endless billions of dollars spent on military adventures built on lies. The American people have meekly submitted to this military overreach for years. The Pentagon asks, both political parties oblige. We have given a blank check to the military with no critical evaluation of results achieved.

It is hard to imagine any president or Congress standing up to the powerful vested interests of the Pentagon, the secret intelligence agencies, and the military-industrial complex. These interests have a permanent investment in perpetual war, somewhere or anywhere.

When Senator Bernie Sanders argued in 2016 that climate change was our greatest national security threat, he did not get much traction. He was laughed at. The merit of that argument is now evident. But we still shovel money at the Pentagon.

I have to laugh when I hear that Medicare for All or a Green New Deal are unaffordable. Is anyone looking at what we are spending money on?

Considering the history of lies from Vietnam to Afghanistan, a complete reorientation of foreign policy should be on the agenda. Next time, we might want to have a rationale before we intervene someplace.

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Greta Thunberg, Science Rebel – posted 12/22/2019 and published in the Concord Monitor on 1/2/2020

December 22, 2019 1 comment

No 16 year old has ever been named Time Magazine Person of the Year. It is always some older person winning that award. That is, until Greta Thunberg this year.

I watched a short video from Time explaining how they made the choice. They described Greta as “the biggest voice on the biggest issue facing the planet this year”. She has been a galvanizing force, leading a worldwide movement.

Time described her as taking climate change from behind the curtain to center stage. They also wrote that she reflects a broader generational shift in culture along with a recognition that our current crop of world leaders are failing to serve the younger generation as well as humanity as a whole.

I guess I worry about the take-away that people will have about Greta’s selection. It is not about one extraordinary young woman, even though she is extraordinary.

We are facing a climate emergency. As Greta has made clear, she is not supporting any political party, politician, or ideology. She is about communicating the science of climate change and the enormous risk of failing to act on it.

There is a remarkably large gap between Greta’s perspective and the mainstream political world. In that world, there is no emergency or any sense of urgency. The world remains ruled by climate change deniers or utterly compromised, half-hearted exponents of climate change who counsel moderation.

Even if they pay lip service to science, our world leaders seem far removed from appreciating what the science means.

Science tells us we are in a race against the clock. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, something of a gold standard among climate scientists, reported in October 2018 that we have to reduce carbon emissions by 40% in the next 12 years to have even a 50% chance of avoiding catastrophe. And yet in 2018 emissions went up from an increase of 1.6% in 2017 to an increase of 2.7%.

The catastrophe alluded to is the suffering and deaths of many millions of people. Things are far worse than is generally recognized because climate change is happening faster than was anticipated. Witness the proliferation of superstorms, extreme wildfires. polar ice and glacier melting, and coral reefs dying.

We are talking about the destruction of many nations, species, and cultures. A 2019 study warned that one million plant and animal species face extinction due to climate change. And still, the world has remained largely indifferent and non-responsive.

While Greta can be seen as some type of prophet like a modern-day Amos, Isaiah, or Jeremiah, I think that is the wrong way to look at her. She is driven by science. In no way is she a religious figure.

Her own personal evolution is interesting. She has said she first became aware of environmental issues at age 8 when her parents told her about recycling and turning off lights to save electricity. She read books and watched documentaries about species collapse and melting glaciers.

She did not understand why the adult world refused to take climate change seriously. She worried about whether she would have a future. She said:

“I overthink. Some people can just let things go, but I can’t, especially if there’s something that worries me or makes me sad. I remember when I was younger, and in school, our teachers showed us films of plastic in the ocean, starving polar bears and so on. I cried through all the movies. My classmates were concerned when they watched the films, but when it stopped, they started thinking about other things. I couldn’t do that. Those pictures were stuck in my head.”

She described herself: “I was the invisible girl in the back of the class “. Greta was quite intellectual. She studied scientific predictions about how radically the earth was likely to change by 2040, 2060 and 2080 if climate remained unaddressed.

At age 11, Greta became very depressed. She stopped talking and eating. Doctors diagnosed her with a form of autism that used to be called Asperger’s syndrome. She also received the diagnosis of selective mutism. She has been quite open about her autism. She does not view it as an illness. She calls it “her superpower”. She did acknowledge that being on the spectrum, things are very black and white for her.

Greta became famous at age 15 when she spent her school days outside the Swedish parliament holding up a sign saying “School strike for the climate”. Although alone at first, her example led to an explosion of protests, especially in Europe.

Greta got the idea of a climate strike after the school shootings at Marjory Stoneham Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida led young people to refuse to go to school.

In the summer of 2018 Greta experienced the record heat wave in Europe and forest fires which ravaged northern Sweden. These were confirming events.

I think her speech in September at the 2019 U.N. Climate Action Summit tremendously raised her profile. In her speech, she said,

“This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you! You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction. And all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”.

Greta has said that the real danger now is politics that makes it look like action is happening when the reality is just creative P.R..

With the 2020 election fast approaching, many voices are counseling moderation, that the only important thing is defeating Trump. One major problem with that view is its failure to reckon with the planetary climate emergency. We need to stop the world warming. That means policies which work to eliminate human-created greenhouse gas emissions of all types as quickly as is humanly possible. Time is of the essence.

Maybe there are times when radical action becomes absolutely necessary. To quote Naomi Klein:

“The truth is that the scientific deadline for deep transformation is so short that if radical action doesn’t roll out every year for the next thirty years, we will have lost the tiny window we have to avert truly catastrophic warming.”

More than anyone, Greta Thunberg deserves credit for challenging the massive climate change denial we are up against.

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COINTELPRO, the Chicago Police and the Murder of Fred Hampton – posted 12/8/2019 and published in the Concord Monitor on 12/26/2019

December 8, 2019 Leave a comment

We all get exposed to so many injustices in life. There are so many that maybe only a small number can truly stick with us.

I suppose how we feel injustice is a very personal thing. Still, some injustices hit harder.

For me, the murder of Fred Hampton was one of those events that hit me harder. Hampton died at age 21. According to all his friends, the guy was fearless. He knew his life was in danger but he always remained committed to the goal of liberation for all poor and oppressed people.

This last December 4 was the 50th anniversary of that horrifying day Hampton died. It took a long time for the true story to emerge but the outlines are now much clearer about what happened.

For those who do not know about or remember, Fred Hampton was a young, charismatic activist in the Black community in Chicago. As a young man, he was an organizer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He organized for better recreational facilities and improved educational resources in his impoverished community. He made a mark as a community organizer.

Hampton was an honors student and a fine athlete. Baseball was a passion and he dreamed of playing center field for the New York Yankees. He also dreamed of becoming a lawyer. He had much exposure to police brutality in the Black community because it was a part of the everyday fabric of life.

Chicago, not unlike many other American cities, has had a long history of racism in its police department. In 2015, the U.S. Justice Department conducted a civil rights investigation into the Chicago Police Department. A Justice Department report concluded that the Chicago police engaged in “both discriminatory conduct and the disproportionality of illegal and unconstitutional patterns of force on minority communities”.

Most famously, a police commander, Jon Burge, and his crew of officers used an electric shock box to torture African American suspects into giving confessions. Other stories of violence committed under Burge include beatings, electric shock to the genitals and games of Russian roulette. Most of this misconduct occurred in the 1970’s and 1980’s. For decades, this torture was covered up by machine politicians and judges. It is estimated Burge tortured more than 200 criminal suspects in order to force confessions.

Numerous civil suits related to police brutality have cost the City of Chicago hundreds of millions of dollars. I think any fair assessment of Fred Hampton requires an appreciation of the context in which he lived. Racism was probably worse during Hampton’s lifetime than in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

As a young man, Fred Hampton became attracted to the Black Panther Party which was in its early days. The Panthers were standing up against the police brutality he saw daily. Hampton joined the Panthers in November 1968. Because of his personal charisma and his organizing skill, he quickly became leader of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers.

Hampton was a political visionary. He wanted to organize a rainbow coalition that included people of all races who shared his political goals. This was years before Jesse Jackson’s rainbow coalition. Jackson did later take the concept from Hampton whom he knew. Hampton brokered a peace agreement among Chicago’s warring gangs.

He helped set up the Panthers Free Breakfast program that particularly served children. The Party also set up the People’s Medical Care Center in North Lawndale, Illinois that provided free health care to the community. The Panthers screened thousands for sickle cell anemia, a genetic disease prevalent among Black people.

Hampton was not a racist. He believed in organizing poor people of whatever background across the racial divide. He became a highly visible and popular public figure in Chicago, often speaking to large meetings about police brutality.

Hampton did not escape notice of either the Chicago police or the FBI which was then run by J. Edgar Hoover. According to FBI memos, Hoover worried about the rise of a “messiah” who could unify and electrify the militant Black nationalist movement.

Hoover wrote that the purpose of COINTELPRO was to neutralize and cripple groups like the Panthers. The FBI started bugging Hampton and his mother and tapping their phones. They also recruited an informant to make his way into the Panthers.

The informant, William O’Neal, had a criminal record. In exchange for having his felony charges dropped and a monthly cash payment, O’Neal agreed to infiltrate the Panthers and report back. Behind the scenes, O’Neal worked to sow distrust and to instigate splits among the Panthers and Chicago gangs.

O’Neal drew a detailed map of the layout of Hampton’s apartment which he handed over to the FBI. The FBI shared the sketch of the apartment with the Chicago police. At the behest of the FBI, the Chicago police set up a raid on Hampton’s apartment.

On December 4, 1969, Cook County State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan organized the raid with a team of 14 operatives. Hanrahan ordered execution of the search warrant at 4:45am. The search was supposedly for illegal weapons.

O’Neal had slipped the barbiturate sleep agent, secobarbital, into Hampton’s drink late that night. When the police came to the apartment, Hampton never got up.

Although the Chicago police called the events that transpired a “shootout”, they were a shoot-in. It was later determined that the police had fired almost 100 shots into the apartment. The Panthers fired one shot out (and the circumstances of that shot are contested).

The Chicago police murdered a drugged and unconscious Hampton in his bed. It was found that shots were fired point blank at Hampton’s head. Another Panther, Mark Clark, was also shot and killed in the raid.

Strangely, after the shooting, the Chicago police did not secure and seal off Hampton’s apartment. The Panthers opened the apartment for viewing and thousands of people from the community viewed the aftermath where they could see the large number of bullet holes and the bloodstained mattress.

Years of litigation followed these events. No one was ever convicted for the murders of Hampton and Clark. A special prosecutor did indict Hanrahan – not for murder but for obstruction of justice. A judge appointed by the Chicago political machine acquitted Hanrahan of these charges. Eventually in 1982, the City of Chicago agreed to settle a civil lawsuit filed on behalf of the Hampton and Clark families for $1.85 million.

The various legal proceedings showed that the raid that killed Hampton was part of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program also known as COINTELPRO. Hoover saw almost all strong Black leaders as advocates of hate. His disgusting campaign against Martin Luther King is probably the best example but it certainly was not the only one. Hoover was a vicious racist.

This is an instance where very high government officials abused their power and were implicated in what can only be described as an assassination. Hampton’s case never received the type of publicity of Dr. King, Malcolm X, or the Kennedy brothers.

However, Hampton did leave a legacy. While the Panthers in Chicago never recovered from his loss, Hampton’s death galvanized the broader Black community. I think there is a straight line from the Hampton/Clark murders to the election of Chicago’s first Black mayor, Harold Washington, and now Lori Lightfoot.

The Hampton/Clark murders provoked a split of African Americans away from the old Richard J. Daley machine and toward independent political organizing. The old Daley machine ruled Chicago politics from 1955 until Daley’s death in 1976. Hanrahan had actually been groomed by Daley to be his prospective successor but his role in the Hampton/Clark murders nixed any chance of that.

Hampton’s story helped to expose the history of racist policing and white supremacy endemic in large American cities like Chicago. When Laquan McDonald was shot by the Chicago police in 2014, the background example of Hampton placed the event in perspective.

A feature length movie on the murder of Fred Hampton is currently in the works with Daniel Kaluuya, the star of Get Out playing Hampton, and Lakeith Stanfield playing William O’Neal. The film, tentatively titled Jesus Was My Homeboy, with screenplay by Shaka King and Will Berson, is slated to come out in August.

Although he paid with his life, Fred Hampton changed the narrative about racist policing and racist police brutality forever.

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Presidents are not kings – posted 12/1/2019 and published in the Concord Monitor on 12/15/2019

December 1, 2019 2 comments

“…Presidents are not kings.” Those powerful words from Judge Ketanji Jackson of the Federal Court in Washington D.C. resonated for millions of Americans. Judge Jackson is the judge who presided over the case about whether Donald McGahn, the president’s former attorney, must comply with a Congressional subpoena to testify before Congress.

At issue is whether McGahn can be compelled to testify where the President claims executive privilege prohibits it.

Actually the President is not just claiming executive privilege. He is claiming absolute immunity from prosecution and even investigation. The President and his lawyers are saying such absolute immunity applies to himself, his staff, and his senior aides, even those who no longer work for him.

This is a staggeringly broad assertion of presidential authority. It is also one that has no basis in legal authority. As Judge Jackson made clear in her opinion, absolute immunity is “a fiction that has been fastidiously maintained over time through the force of sheer repetition”.

In other words, there is nothing behind the claim of absolute immunity. Trump and his team made it up. Whether it is for purposes of delay (running out the clock) or some other agenda, Article II of the Constitution provides no such extreme privilege. Executive privilege is a very different beast than absolute immunity; it is narrower and more nuanced.

Trump is trying to place himself above the law. He has said that Article II of the Constitution gives himself the right to do whatever he wants as President. He argues that he cannot be indicted while in office. Whether it is New York state prosecutors seeking information about hush money payments he made to two women or House committees seeking his tax returns, he stonewalls.

Trump’s lawyers did actually argue in a federal appeals court that Trump could shoot someone in broad daylight on Fifth Avenue and face no criminal consequence because he is immune from prosecution while in office. Apparently, the role of the Department of Justice is to help him get away with it.

If we step outside the bubble that is Washington DC partisan politics, the absurdity of this position is immediately observable. The President has a good faith constitutional duty to faithfully execute the laws. There is almost no constitutional support for the assertion that a sitting president cannot be indicted. The Department of Justice has a long-standing policy not to indict a sitting president. A policy is not law. It is, at most, persuasive authority.

Congress needs to clarify that a sitting president can be indicted for criminal activity, including obstruction of justice.

I am amazed at the buy-in of conservatives and many Republicans with Trump’s dictatorial view of executive power. I thought conservatives believed in limited government.

Trump is failing to abide by the Constitution in not recognizing the three co-equal branches of government. In the Trump view, there are no checks and balances – only an all-powerful Executive. In his actions, Trump treats Congress as an inconvenience and a nuisance to be strong-armed. Not only does he refuse to share power, he impedes all Congressional investigations by refusing to provide documents and witnesses. What Congress does is “a hoax” or “a witch hunt”.

After criticism for his decision to host a G-7 Summit of world leaders at his Doral, Florida resort, Trump called the emoluments clause in the Constitution “phony”. I do not recall any president ever disparaging provisions in the Constitution, whatever they privately felt.

James Madison had predicted that elected leaders could become intoxicated with power and might seek greater power for themselves. That is exactly what is happening now.

It is worth recalling that our nation was founded in a rebellion against the British monarchy. The Founders were quite conscious of Europe’s miserable history of despotic regimes subject to the church and monarchs. The design of the three co-equal branches was an effort to avoid an American tyrant-in-charge. The Founders famously worried about power corrupting.

Trump is like an embodiment of those fears. Even worse, is the fantasy world he has constructed through his tweets and public utterances. He won by a landslide. He was the victim of illegal voting and he really won the popular vote. The Ukrainians, not the Russians, interfered in the 2016 election. In the matter of who interfered in 2016, Putin, not the American intelligence services, is a more reliable source. This administration has gotten more done than any other administration.

Destroying facts through the constant repetition of lies and the degradation of words has been part of how totalitarian regimes rule. By October, the Washington Post Fact Checker database found that Trump had made 13,435 false or misleading claims during his presidency. Trump is following a well-established playbook where words become meaningless.

Trump jokes about not leaving office. Although the Constitution limits presidents to two terms, Trump has repeatedly raised the possibility that the people will demand he stay longer. He has praised Chinese President Xi Jinping for being president for life and has said maybe we should give that a shot someday.

One does have to wonder whether Trump sees himself as a temporary custodian of the presidency. Trump’s ex-lawyer Michael Cohen warned that if Trump were to lose the 2020 election, he would not permit a peaceful transition of power. For Trump, the presidency is the ultimate business opportunity to sell his brand.

For those who think Trump is joking about staying on after two terms, I think of the writer Masha Gessen who has written, “Believe the autocrat. He means what he says…humans seem to have evolved to practice denial when confronted with the unacceptable”.

It is not at all clear that checks and balances will save us. Removal by impeachment takes two-thirds of the senate, a daunting number. So far, Senate Republicans have remained cowardly sycophants.

Trump is not a normal bad president – he is an existential threat. He has eroded the rule of law. He delegitimizes judges who rule against his policies. He has tried to undermine free and fair elections both in 2016 and 2020. He claims an absolute right to pardon himself.

As a pathological liar, a sexual predator, a serial tax-avoider, a race-baiter, and an election-corrupter, Trump has more than earned impeachment and removal from office. The problem would seem to be that Republicans are placing party loyalty over constitutional responsibility. Fear of the political cost of defying Trump controls behavior.

If Trump does not face consequences for his corruption, it is predictable he will be empowered toward his goal of being an autocratic strongman, without regard for any ethical or legal limits. Whether we survive as a constitutional democracy is an open question.

There is no certainty how events will unfold. Without vigorous resistance, we could end up with a king for president.

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