Are the ideas of the conservative political philosopher Leo Strauss a shaping influence on the Bush administration’s world outlook? Danny Postel interviews Shadia Drury – a leading scholarly critic of Strauss – and asks her about the connection between Plato’s dialogues, secrets and lies, and the United States-led war in Iraq.
What was initially an anti-war argument is now a matter of public record. It is widely recognised that the Bush administration was not honest about the reasons it gave for invading Iraq.
Paul Wolfowitz, the influential United States deputy secretary of defense, has acknowledged that the evidence used to justify the war was “murky” and now says that weapons of mass destruction weren’t the crucial issue anyway (see the book by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, Weapons of Mass Deception: the uses of propaganda in Bush’s war on Iraq (2003.)
For a short biography of Leo Strauss, and a guide to recent commentary on his influence on US neo-conservatism, see the end of this article.
By contrast, Shadia Drury, professor of political theory at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, argues that the use of deception and manipulation in current US policy flow directly from the doctrines of the political philosopher Leo Strauss (1899-1973). His disciples include Paul Wolfowitz and other neo-conservatives who have driven much of the political agenda of the Bush administration.
If Shadia Drury is right, then American policy-makers exercise deception with greater coherence than their British allies in Tony Blair’s 10 Downing Street. In the UK, a public inquiry is currently underway into the death of the biological weapons expert David Kelly. A central theme is also whether the government deceived the public, as a BBC reporter suggested.
The inquiry has documented at least some of the ways the prime minister’s entourage ‘sexed up’ the presentation of intelligence on the Iraqi threat. But few doubt that in terms of their philosophy, if they have one, members of Blair’s staff believe they must be trusted as honest. Any apparent deceptions they may be involved in are for them matters of presentation or ‘spin’: attempts to project an honest gloss when surrounded by a dishonest media.
The deep influence of Leo Strauss’s ideas on the current architects of US foreign policy has been referred to, if sporadically, in the press (hence an insider witticism about the influence of “Leo-cons”). Christopher Hitchens, an ardent advocate of the war, wrote unashamedly in November 2002 (in an article felicitously titled Machiavelli in Mesopotamia) that:
“[p]art of the charm of the regime-change argument (from the point of view of its supporters) is that it depends on premises and objectives that cannot, at least by the administration, be publicly avowed. Since Paul Wolfowitz is from the intellectual school of Leo Strauss – and appears in fictional guise as such in Saul Bellow’s novel Ravelstein – one may even suppose that he enjoys this arcane and occluded aspect of the debate.”
Perhaps no scholar has done as much to illuminate the Strauss phenomenon as Shadia Drury. For fifteen years she has been shining a heat lamp on the Straussians with such books as The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss (1988) and Leo Strauss and the American Right (1997). She is also the author of Alexandre Kojève: the Roots of Postmodern Politics (1994) and Terror and Civilization (forthcoming).
She argues that the central claims of Straussian thought wield a crucial influence on men of power in the contemporary United States. She elaborates her argument in this interview.
A natural order of inequality
Danny Postel: You’ve argued that there is an important connection between the teachings of Leo Strauss and the Bush administration’s selling of the Iraq war. What is that connection?
Shadia Drury: Leo Strauss was a great believer in the efficacy and usefulness of lies in politics. Public support for the Iraq war rested on lies about Iraq posing an imminent threat to the United States – the business about weapons of mass destruction and a fictitious alliance between al-Qaida and the Iraqi regime. Now that the lies have been exposed, Paul Wolfowitz and others in the war party are denying that these were the real reasons for the war.
So what were the real reasons? Reorganising the balance of power in the Middle East in favour of Israel? Expanding American hegemony in the Arab world? Possibly. But these reasons would not have been sufficient in themselves to mobilise American support for the war. And the Straussian cabal in the administration realised that.
Danny Postel: The neo-conservative vision is commonly taken to be about spreading democracy and liberal values globally. And when Strauss is mentioned in the press, he is typically described as a great defender of liberal democracy against totalitarian tyranny. You’ve written, however, that Strauss had a “profound antipathy to both liberalism and democracy.”
Shadia Drury: The idea that Strauss was a great defender of liberal democracy is laughable. I suppose that Strauss’s disciples consider it a noble lie. Yet many in the media have been gullible enough to believe it.
How could an admirer of Plato and Nietzsche be a liberal democrat? The ancient philosophers whom Strauss most cherished believed that the unwashed masses were not fit for either truth or liberty, and that giving them these sublime treasures would be like throwing pearls before swine. In contrast to modern political thinkers, the ancients denied that there is any natural right to liberty. Human beings are born neither free nor equal. The natural human condition, they held, is not one of freedom, but of subordination – and in Strauss’s estimation they were right in thinking so.
Praising the wisdom of the ancients and condemning the folly of the moderns was the whole point of Strauss’s most famous book, Natural Right and History. The cover of the book sports the American Declaration of Independence. But the book is a celebration of nature – not the natural rights of man (as the appearance of the book would lead one to believe) but the natural order of domination and subordination.
The necessity of lies
Danny Postel: What is the relevance of Strauss’s interpretation of Plato’s notion of the noble lie?
Shadia Drury: Strauss rarely spoke in his own name. He wrote as a commentator on the classical texts of political theory. But he was an extremely opinionated and dualistic commentator. The fundamental distinction that pervades and informs all of his work is that between the ancients and the moderns. Strauss divided the history of political thought into two camps: the ancients (like Plato) are wise and wily, whereas the moderns (like Locke and other liberals) are vulgar and foolish. Now, it seems to me eminently fair and reasonable to attribute to Strauss the ideas he attributes to his beloved ancients.
In Plato’s dialogues, everyone assumes that Socrates is Plato’s mouthpiece. But Strauss argues in his book The City and Man (pp. 74-5, 77, 83-4, 97, 100, 111) that Thrasymachus is Plato’s real mouthpiece (on this point, see also M.F. Burnyeat, “Sphinx without a Secret”, New York Review of Books, 30 May 1985 [paid-for only]). So, we must surmise that Strauss shares the insights of the wise Plato (alias Thrasymachus) that justice is merely the interest of the stronger; that those in power make the rules in their own interests and call it justice.
Leo Strauss repeatedly defends the political realism of Thrasymachus and Machiavelli (see, for example, his Natural Right and History, p. 106). This view of the world is clearly manifest in the foreign policy of the current administration in the United States.
A second fundamental belief of Strauss’s ancients has to do with their insistence on the need for secrecy and the necessity of lies. In his book Persecution and the Art of Writing, Strauss outlines why secrecy is necessary. He argues that the wise must conceal their views for two reasons – to spare the people’s feelings and to protect the elite from possible reprisals.
The people will not be happy to learn that there is only one natural right – the right of the superior to rule over the inferior, the master over the slave, the husband over the wife, and the wise few over the vulgar many. In On Tyranny, Strauss refers to this natural right as the “tyrannical teaching” of his beloved ancients. It is tyrannical in the classic sense of rule above rule or in the absence of law (p. 70).
Now, the ancients were determined to keep this tyrannical teaching secret because the people are not likely to tolerate the fact that they are intended for subordination; indeed, they may very well turn their resentment against the superior few. Lies are thus necessary to protect the superior few from the persecution of the vulgar many.
The effect of Strauss’s teaching is to convince his acolytes that they are the natural ruling elite and the persecuted few. And it does not take much intelligence for them to surmise that they are in a situation of great danger, especially in a world devoted to the modern ideas of equal rights and freedoms. Now more than ever, the wise few must proceed cautiously and with circumspection. So, they come to the conclusion that they have a moral justification to lie in order to avoid persecution. Strauss goes so far as to say that dissembling and deception – in effect, a culture of lies – is the peculiar justice of the wise.
Strauss justifies his position by an appeal to Plato’s concept of the noble lie. But in truth, Strauss has a very impoverished conception of Plato’s noble lie. Plato thought that the noble lie is a story whose details are fictitious; but at the heart of it is a profound truth.
In the myth of metals, for example, some people have golden souls – meaning that they are more capable of resisting the temptations of power. And these morally trustworthy types are the ones who are most fit to rule. The details are fictitious, but the moral of the story is that not all human beings are morally equal.
In contrast to this reading of Plato, Strauss thinks that the superiority of the ruling philosophers is an intellectual superiority and not a moral one (Natural Right and History, p. 151). For many commentators who (like Karl Popper) have read Plato as a totalitarian, the logical consequence is to doubt that philosophers can be trusted with political power. Those who read him this way invariably reject him. Strauss is the only interpreter who gives a sinister reading to Plato, and then celebrates him.
The dialectic of fear and tyranny
Danny Postel: In the Straussian scheme of things, there are the wise few and the vulgar many. But there is also a third group – the gentlemen. Would you explain how they figure?
Shadia Drury: There are indeed three types of men: the wise, the gentlemen, and the vulgar. The wise are the lovers of the harsh, unadulterated truth. They are capable of looking into the abyss without fear and trembling. They recognise neither God nor moral imperatives. They are devoted above all else to their own pursuit of the “higher” pleasures, which amount to consorting with their “puppies” or young initiates.
The second type, the gentlemen, are lovers of honour and glory. They are the most ingratiating towards the conventions of their society – that is, the illusions of the cave. They are true believers in God, honour, and moral imperatives. They are ready and willing to embark on acts of great courage and self-sacrifice at a moment’s notice.
The third type, the vulgar many, are lovers of wealth and pleasure. They are selfish, slothful, and indolent. They can be inspired to rise above their brutish existence only by fear of impending death or catastrophe.
Like Plato, Strauss believed that the supreme political ideal is the rule of the wise. But the rule of the wise is unattainable in the real world. Now, according to the conventional wisdom, Plato realised this, and settled for the rule of law. But Strauss did not endorse this solution entirely. Nor did he think that it was Plato’s real solution – Strauss pointed to the “nocturnal council” in Plato’s Laws to illustrate his point.
The real Platonic solution as understood by Strauss is the covert rule of the wise (see Strauss’s – The Argument and the Action of Plato’s Laws). This covert rule is facilitated by the overwhelming stupidity of the gentlemen. The more gullible and unperceptive they are, the easier it is for the wise to control and manipulate them. Supposedly, Xenophon makes that clear to us.
For Strauss, the rule of the wise is not about classic conservative values like order, stability, justice, or respect for authority. The rule of the wise is intended as an antidote to modernity. Modernity is the age in which the vulgar many have triumphed. It is the age in which they have come closest to having exactly what their hearts desire – wealth, pleasure, and endless entertainment. But in getting just what they desire, they have unwittingly been reduced to beasts.
Nowhere is this state of affairs more advanced than in America. And the global reach of American culture threatens to trivialise life and turn it into entertainment. This was as terrifying a spectre for Strauss as it was for Alexandre Kojève and Carl Schmitt.
This is made clear in Strauss’s exchange with Kojève (reprinted in Strauss’s On Tyranny), and in his commentary on Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political (reprinted in Heinrich Meier, Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss: The Hidden Dialogue). Kojève lamented the animalisation of man and Schmitt worried about the trivialisation of life. All three of them were convinced that liberal economics would turn life into entertainment and destroy politics; all three understood politics as a conflict between mutually hostile groups willing to fight each other to the death. In short, they all thought that man’s humanity depended on his willingness to rush naked into battle and headlong to his death. Only perpetual war can overturn the modern project, with its emphasis on self-preservation and “creature comforts.” Life can be politicised once more, and man’s humanity can be restored.
This terrifying vision fits perfectly well with the desire for honour and glory that the neo-conservative gentlemen covet. It also fits very well with the religious sensibilities of gentlemen. The combination of religion and nationalism is the elixir that Strauss advocates as the way to turn natural, relaxed, hedonistic men into devout nationalists willing to fight and die for their God and country.
I never imagined when I wrote my first book on Strauss that the unscrupulous elite that he elevates would ever come so close to political power, nor that the ominous tyranny of the wise would ever come so close to being realised in the political life of a great nation like the United States. But fear is the greatest ally of tyranny.
Danny Postel: You’ve described Strauss as a nihilist.
Shadia Drury: Strauss is a nihilist in the sense that he believes that there is no rational foundation for morality. He is an atheist, and he believes that in the absence of God, morality has no grounding. It’s all about benefiting others and oneself; there is no objective reason for doing so, only rewards and punishments in this life.
But Strauss is not a nihilist if we mean by the term a denial that there is any truth, a belief that everything is interpretation. He does not deny that there is an independent reality. On the contrary, he thinks that independent reality consists in nature and its “order of rank” – the high and the low, the superior and the inferior. Like Nietzsche, he believes that the history of western civilisation has led to the triumph of the inferior, the rabble – something they both lamented profoundly.
Danny Postel: This connection is curious, since Strauss is bedevilled by Nietzsche; and one of Strauss’s most famous students, Allan Bloom, fulminates profusely in his book The Closing of the American Mind against the influence of Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger.
Shadia Drury: Strauss’s criticism of the existentialists, especially Heidegger, is that they tried to elicit an ethic out of the abyss. This was the ethic of resoluteness – choose whatever you like and be loyal to it to the death; its content does not matter. But Strauss’s reaction to moral nihilism was different. Nihilistic philosophers, he believes, should reinvent the Judæo-Christian God, but live like pagan gods themselves – taking pleasure in the games they play with each other as well as the games they play on ordinary mortals.
The question of nihilism is complicated, but there is no doubt that Strauss’s reading of Plato entails that the philosophers should return to the cave and manipulate the images (in the form of media, magazines, newspapers). They know full well that the line they espouse is mendacious, but they are convinced that theirs are noble lies.
The intoxication of perpetual war
Danny Postel: You characterise the outlook of the Bush administration as a kind of realism, in the spirit of Thrasymachus and Machiavelli. But isn’t the real divide within the administration (and on the American right more generally) more complex: between foreign policy realists, who are pragmatists, and neo-conservatives, who see themselves as idealists – even moralists – on a mission to topple tyrants, and therefore in a struggle against realism?
Shadia Drury: I think that the neo-conservatives are for the most part genuine in wanting to spread the American commercial model of liberal democracy around the globe. They are convinced that it is the best thing, not just for America, but for the world. Naturally, there is a tension between these “idealists” and the more hard-headed realists within the administration.
I contend that the tensions and conflicts within the current administration reflect the differences between the surface teaching, which is appropriate for gentlemen, and the ‘nocturnal’ or covert teaching, which the philosophers alone are privy to. It is very unlikely for an ideology inspired by a secret teaching to be entirely coherent.
The issue of nationalism is an example of this. The philosophers, wanting to secure the nation against its external enemies as well as its internal decadence, sloth, pleasure, and consumption, encourage a strong patriotic fervour among the honour-loving gentlemen who wield the reins of power. That strong nationalistic spirit consists in the belief that their nation and its values are the best in the world, and that all other cultures and their values are inferior in comparison.
Irving Kristol, the father of neo-conservatism and a Strauss disciple, denounced nationalism in a 1973 essay; but in another essay written in 1983, he declared that the foreign policy of neo-conservatism must reflect its nationalist proclivities. A decade on, in a 1993 essay, he claimed that “religion, nationalism, and economic growth are the pillars of neoconservatism.” (See “The Coming ‘Conservative Century’”, in Neoconservatism: the autobiography of an idea, p. 365.)
In Reflections of a Neoconservative (p. xiii), Kristol wrote that:
“patriotism springs from love of the nation’s past; nationalism arises out of hope for the nation’s future, distinctive greatness…. Neoconservatives believe… that the goals of American foreign policy must go well beyond a narrow, too literal definition of ‘national security’. It is the national interest of a world power, as this is defined by a sense of national destiny … not a myopic national security”.
The same sentiment was echoed by the doyen of contemporary Straussianism, Harry Jaffa, when he said that America is the “Zion that will light up all the world.”It is easy to see how this sort of thinking can get out of hand, and why hard-headed realists tend to find it naïve if not dangerous.
But Strauss’s worries about America’s global aspirations are entirely different. Like Heidegger, Schmitt, and Kojève, Strauss would be more concerned that America would succeed in this enterprise than that it would fail. In that case, the “last man” would extinguish all hope for humanity (Nietzsche); the “night of the world” would be at hand (Heidegger); the animalisation of man would be complete (Kojève); and the trivialisation of life would be accomplished (Schmitt). That is what the success of America’s global aspirations meant to them.
Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man is a popularisation of this viewpoint. It sees the coming catastrophe of American global power as inevitable, and seeks to make the best of a bad situation. It is far from a celebration of American dominance.
On this perverse view of the world, if America fails to achieve her “national destiny”, and is mired in perpetual war, then all is well. Man’s humanity, defined in terms of struggle to the death, is rescued from extinction. But men like Heidegger, Schmitt, Kojève, and Strauss expect the worst. They expect that the universal spread of the spirit of commerce would soften manners and emasculate man. To my mind, this fascistic glorification of death and violence springs from a profound inability to celebrate life, joy, and the sheer thrill of existence.
To be clear, Strauss was not as hostile to democracy as he was to liberalism. This is because he recognises that the vulgar masses have numbers on their side, and the sheer power of numbers cannot be completely ignored. Whatever can be done to bring the masses along is legitimate. If you can use democracy to turn the masses against their own liberty, this is a great triumph. It is the sort of tactic that neo-conservatives use consistently, and in some cases very successfully.
Among the Straussians
Danny Postel: Finally, I’d like to ask about your interesting reception among the Straussians. Many of them dismiss your interpretation of Strauss and denounce your work in the most adamant terms (“bizarre splenetic”). Yet one scholar, Laurence Lampert, has reprehended his fellow Straussians for this, writing in his Leo Strauss and Nietzsche that your book The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss “contains many fine skeptical readings of Strauss’s texts and acute insights into Strauss’s real intentions.” Harry Jaffa has even made the provocative suggestion that you might be a “closet Straussian” yourself!
Shadia Drury: I have been publicly denounced and privately adored. Following the publication of my book The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss in 1988, letters and gifts poured in from Straussian graduate students and professors all over North America – books, dissertations, tapes of Strauss’s Hillel House lectures in Chicago, transcripts of every course he ever taught at the university, and even a personally crafted Owl of Minerva with a letter declaring me a goddess of wisdom! They were amazed that an outsider could have penetrated the secret teaching. They sent me unpublished material marked with clear instructions not to distribute to “suspicious persons”.
I received letters from graduate students in Toronto, Chicago, Duke, Boston College, Claremont, Fordham, and other Straussian centres of “learning.” One of the students compared his experience in reading my work with “a person lost in the wilderness who suddenly happens on a map.” Some were led to abandon their schools in favour of fresher air; but others were delighted to discover what it was they were supposed to believe in order to belong to the charmed circle of future philosophers and initiates.
After my first book on Strauss came out, some of the Straussians in Canada dubbed me the “bitch from Calgary.” Of all the titles I hold, that is the one I cherish most. The hostility toward me was understandable. Nothing is more threatening to Strauss and his acolytes than the truth in general and the truth about Strauss in particular. His admirers are determined to conceal the truth about his ideas.
Respond to this article, and debate Strauss, philosophy and politics in our forum.
My intention in writing the book was to express Strauss’s ideas clearly and without obfuscation so that his views could become the subject of philosophical debate and criticism, and not the stuff of feverish conviction. I wanted to smoke the Straussians out of their caves and into the philosophical light of day. But instead of engaging me in philosophical debate, they denied that Strauss stood for any of the ideas I attributed to him.
Laurence Lampert is the only Straussian to declare valiantly that it is time to stop playing games and to admit that Strauss was indeed a Nietzschean thinker – that it is time to stop the denial and start defending Strauss’s ideas.
I suspect that Lampert’s honesty is threatening to those among the Straussians who are interested in philosophy but who seek power. There is no doubt that open and candid debate about Strauss is likely to undermine their prospects in Washington.
Who is Leo Strauss?Leo Strauss was born in 1899 in the region of Hessen, Germany, the son of a Jewish small businessman. He went to secondary school in Marburg and served as an interpreter in the German army in the first world war. He was awarded a doctorate at Hamburg University in 1921 for a thesis on philosophy that was supervised by Ernst Cassirer.
Strauss’s post-doctoral work involved study of Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, and in 1930 he published his first book, on Spinoza’s critique of religion; his second, on the 12th century Jewish philosopher Maimonides, was published in 1935. After a research period in London, he published The Political Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes in 1936.
In 1937, he moved to Columbia University, and from 1938 to 1948 taught political science and philosophy at the New School for Social Research, New York. During this period he wrote On Tyranny (1948) and Persecution and the Art of Writing (1952).
In 1949, he became professor of political philosophy at the University of Chicago, and remained there for twenty years. His works of this period include Natural Right and History (1953), Thoughts on Machiavelli (1958), What is Political Philosophy? (1959), The City and Man (1964), Socrates and Aristophanes (1966), and Liberalism Ancient and Modern (1968).
Between 1968 and 1973, Strauss taught in colleges in California and Maryland, and completed work on Xenophon’s Socratic discourses and Argument and Action of Plato’s Laws (1975). After his death in October 1973, the essay collection Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy (1983) was published.
Recommended articles on Leo Strauss, neo-conservatism, and Iraq
M.F. Burnyeat, “Sphinx without a Secret”, New York Review of Books, 30 May 1985 [paid-for only]
Stephen Holmes, “Truths for Philosophers Alone?”, Times Literary Supplement, 1-7 December 1989; reprinted in Stephen Holmes, The Anatomy of Antiliberalism (1996)
Gregory Bruce Smith, “Leo Strauss and the Straussians: An Anti-democratic Cult?”, PS: Political Science & Politics Vol. 30 No. 2 (June 1997) [affiliate only]
Michiko Kakutani, “How Books Have Shaped U.S. Policy,” The New York Times, 5 April 2003 [paid-for only]
Alain Frachon and Daniel Vernet, “The Strategist and the Philosopher”, Le Monde, 15 April 2003
James Atlas, “A Classicist’s Legacy: New Empire Builders,” The New York Times, 4 May 2003 [paid-for only]
Jeet Heer, “The Philosopher,” The Boston Globe, 11 May 2003 [paid-for only]
Jim Lobe, “The Strong Must Rule the Weak: A Philosopher for an Empire,” Foreign Policy in Focus, 12 May 2003
Seymour Hersh, “Selective Intelligence,” The New Yorker, 12 May 2003
William Pfaff, “The long reach of Leo Strauss”, International Herald Tribune, 15 May 2003
Peter Berkowitz, “What Hath Strauss Wrought?”, Weekly Standard, 2 June 2003
“Philosophers and kings,” The Economist, 19 June 2003
Steven Lenzner & William Kristol, “What was Leo Strauss up to?”, The Public Interest, Fall 2003
Laura Rozen “Con Tract: the theory behind neocon self-deception”, Washington Monthly, October 2003
July 27, 2007
by Robert Baer
You would think by now the Bush Administration would have drained the well of bad intelligence on Iraq and Iran. Apparently not.
This week the White House made a big show of declassifying intelligence alleging that in 2005 al-Qaeda considered using Iraq as a base to launch terrorist attacks on the United States. The White House didn’t bother to mask the reason for the disclosure — to put pressure on the Democrats to stop trying to impose a date for a withdrawal from Iraq. Meanwhile, ABC News reported that the White House recently ordered the CIA to destabilize the Iranian regime.
Both cases show how the Administration is still trying to manipulate intelligence to further its strategic goals. ABC says that Deputy National Security Advisor Elliot Abrams is behind the covert action against Iran, which reportedly stems from a “nonlethal presidential finding” signed by Bush to launch a plan that “includes a coordinated campaign of propaganda, disinformation and manipulation of Iran’s currency and international financial transactions.” But the CIA has consistently told this White House it can’t do anything about the mullahs in Tehran short of strangling the country economically, in particular cutting off finished fuel products. That could take years, which is too long for the Bush Administration. (Both the White House and CIA refused to comment to ABC about the report.)
It’s no surprise that Abrams would be behind this. But of all people he should know better. Abrams was a key player in the Iran-contra fiasco, which was rooted in lousy intelligence. In case you have forgotten, a handful of confidence men convinced the Reagan NSC, along with Abrams, that they were talking to moderate Iranians, who, properly nurtured, would supposedly change the character of the Iranian regime. It was a lie; the NSC was dealing with the most radical, hostile faction in Iran, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the same group holding our hostages in Lebanon.
Once again, neo-cons are urging the U.S. to take advantage of Iraq’s long border with Iran and finally do something about the Iranian regime. I even got a call not long after the invasion from a neo-con asking if I wanted to go to Iraq to handle the Mujahideen-e-Khlaq, an Iranian dissident group on the State Department’s terrorist list. The mission was supposedly to collect intelligence on Iranian nuclear facilities. (I declined, and I don’t know where it went from there.) And I still keep hearing rumblings that Elliot Abrams is pressuring our Arab allies and Pakistan to fund and arm Jundallah, a fundamentalist Sunni Iranian Ballouch group, to attack the Iranian government — in other words, an off-the-books covert action. But neither the MEK nor Jundallah has the wherewithal to change the regime in Tehran.
As for the intelligence on al-Qaeda and Iraq, it’s even flimsier. The captured Qaeda member who provided it, Abu Faraj al-Libbi, may have been tortured, either by Pakistan, by the CIA or at Guantanamo. Even if we accept the White House’s euphemism for torture — “enhanced interrogation” techniques — what Libbi has to say about Qaeda can’t be trusted, let alone drive U.S. policy.
Never mind that no one can decide what exact role Libbi played in Qaeda, or whether he was even in a position to know bin Laden’s plans. He was never on the FBI Most Wanted list (as most Qaeda leaders on whom we have sufficient evidence are). Abu Faraj al-Libbi isn’t even his real name (al-Libbi means “the Libyan” in Arabic). Abu Faraj al-Libbi is often confused with Ibn Shaykh al-Libbi, who was captured shortly after 9/11 and reportedly recanted his confession about Saddam having a pre-9/11 connection to al-Qaeda, saying it was coerced. Abu Faraj was also initially confused with Anas al-Liby, who was supposedly involved in the 1998 East Africa bombings and is on the Most Wanted list. Confused? Well, that’s just the way the White House likes it.
Another problem with Abu Faraj al-Libbi’s confession is that it doesn’t make sense. Qaeda knows as well as anyone that Iraq, where the U.S. military could knock down your door at any moment, would be one of the worst places in the world from which to launch or plan a terrorist attack on the United States. The Administration knows that America is much more vulnerable in Europe. A Qaeda terrorist with a European passport can come into this country under the visa waiver program, virtually without scrutiny.
If the Bush Administration continues to feed the American people the same dog’s breakfast of bad intelligence, we’ll be in Iraq until Bush leaves office. And while we’re at it, just maybe in a war with Iran.
Robert Baer, a former CIA field officer assigned to the Middle East and Time.com’s intelligence columnist, is the author of See No Evil and, most recently, the novel Blow the House Down
July 26, 2007
Tomgram: Chalmers Johnson on an Agency of Rogues
by Tom Engelhardt | Jul 25 2007 – 8:37am | permalink
article tools: email | print | read more Tom Engelhardt
The secret prison was set up on a secure U.S. Naval base outside the U.S. and so beyond the slightest recourse to legal oversight. It was there that the CIA clandestinely brought its “suspects” to be interrogated, abused, and tortured.
That description might indeed sound like Guantanamo 2002, but think again. According to New York Times reporter Tim Weiner’s new history of the Central Intelligence Agency, Legacy of Ashes — a remarkable treasure trove of grim and startling information you hadn’t known before — this actually happened first in the Panama Canal Zone in the early 1950s. It was there, as well as at two secret prisons located in Germany and Japan, the defeated Axis powers (and not, in those days, in Thailand or Rumania), that the CIA brought questionable double agents for “secret experiments” in harsh interrogation, “using techniques on the edge of torture, drug-induced mind control, and brainwashing.” This was but a small part of “Project Artichoke,” a 15-year, multi-billion dollar “search by the CIA for ways to control the human mind.”
No book in recent memory has done such a superb job of illuminating the roiling, disastrous, thoroughly destructive path through history of America’s top covert-operations agency over the last six decades, what Chalmers Johnson has often called “the president’s private army.” Johnson himself was an outside consultant for the CIA from 1967 to 1973 until, as he writes in his latest book Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic (the third volume of his Blowback Trilogy), “this consulting function was abolished by [National Security Advisor Henry] Kissinger and [CIA Director James] Schlesinger during [President Richard] Nixon’s second term precisely because they did not want outsiders interfering with their ability to tell the president what to think.” On first arrival at the Agency’s “campus” in Langley, Virginia, Johnson reminds us, Schlesinger, in the typically highhanded fashion of CIA heads, immediately announced, “I am here to see that you guys don’t screw Richard Nixon.” Think of CIA Directors George Tenet or Porter Goss and George Bush and you’re back in our present age.
As books, Nemesis and Legacy of Ashes complement each other superbly, so I thought it worthwhile to set Johnson loose on Weiner’s new work in a rare book review for Tomdispatch.
* * *
The Life and Times of the CIA: Wall Street Brokers, Ivy League Professors, Soldiers of Fortune, Ad Men, Newsmen, Stunt Men, Second-Story Men, and Con Men on Active Duty for the United States
By Chalmers Johnson
This essay is a review of Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA by Tim Weiner (Doubleday, 702 pp., $27.95).
The American people may not know it but they have some severe problems with one of their official governmental entities, the Central Intelligence Agency. Because of the almost total secrecy surrounding its activities and the lack of cost accounting on how it spends the money covertly appropriated for it within the defense budget, it is impossible for citizens to know what the CIA’s approximately 17,000 employees do with, or for, their share of the yearly $44 billion–$48 billion or more spent on “intelligence.” This inability to account for anything at the CIA is, however, only one problem with the Agency and hardly the most serious one either.
There are currently at least two criminal trials underway in Italy and Germany against several dozen CIA officials for felonies committed in those countries, including kidnapping people with a legal right to be in Germany and Italy, illegally transporting them to countries such as Egypt and Jordan for torture, and causing them to “disappear” into secret foreign or CIA-run prisons outside the U.S. without any form of due process of law.
The possibility that CIA funds are simply being ripped off by insiders is also acute. The CIA’s former number three official, its executive director and chief procurement officer, Kyle “Dusty” Foggo, is now under federal indictment in San Diego for corruptly funneling contracts for water, air services, and armored vehicles to a lifelong friend and defense contractor, Brent Wilkes, who was unqualified to perform the services being sought. In return, Wilkes treated Foggo to thousands of dollars’ worth of vacation trips and dinners, and promised him a top job at his company when he retired from the CIA.
Thirty years ago, in a futile attempt to provide some check on endemic misbehavior by the CIA, the administration of Gerald Ford created the President’s Intelligence Oversight Board. It was to be a civilian watchdog over the Agency. A 1981 executive order by President Ronald Reagan made the board permanent and gave it the mission of identifying CIA violations of the law (while keeping them secret in order not to endanger national security). Through five previous administrations, members of the board — all civilians not employed by the government — actively reported on and investigated some of the CIA’s most secret operations that seemed to breach legal limits.
However, on July 15, 2007, John Solomon of the Washington Post reported that, for the first five-and-a-half years of the Bush administration, the Intelligence Oversight Board did nothing — no investigations, no reports, no questioning of CIA officials. It evidently found no reason to inquire into the interrogation methods Agency operatives employed at secret prisons or the transfer of captives to countries that use torture, or domestic wiretapping not warranted by a federal court.
Who were the members of this non-oversight board of see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil monkeys? The board now in place is led by former Bush economic adviser Stephen Friedman. It includes Don Evans, a former commerce secretary and friend of the President, former Admiral David Jeremiah, and lawyer Arthur B. Culvahouse. The only thing they accomplished was to express their contempt for a legal order by a president of the United States.
Corrupt and undemocratic practices by the CIA have prevailed since it was created in 1947. However, as citizens we have now, for the first time, been given a striking range of critical information necessary to understand how this situation came about and why it has been so impossible to remedy. We have a long, richly documented history of the CIA from its post-World War II origins to its failure to supply even the most elementary information about Iraq before the 2003 invasion of that country.
Declassified CIA Records
Tim Weiner’s book, Legacy of Ashes, is important for many reasons, but certainly one is that it brings back from the dead the possibility that journalism can actually help citizens perform elementary oversight on our government. Until Weiner’s magnificent effort, I would have agreed with Seymour Hersh that, in the current crisis of American governance and foreign policy, the failure of the press has been almost complete. Our journalists have generally not even tried to penetrate the layers of secrecy that the executive branch throws up to ward off scrutiny of its often illegal and incompetent activities. This is the first book I’ve read in a long time that documents its very important assertions in a way that goes well beyond asking readers merely to trust the reporter.
Weiner, a New York Times correspondent, has been working on Legacy of Ashes for 20 years. He has read over 50,000 government documents, mostly from the CIA, the White House, and the State Department. He was instrumental in causing the CIA Records Search Technology (CREST) program of the National Archives to declassify many of them, particularly in 2005 and 2006. He has read more than 2,000 oral histories of American intelligence officers, soldiers, and diplomats and has himself conducted more than 300 on-the-record interviews with current and past CIA officers, including ten former directors of central intelligence. Truly exceptional among authors of books on the CIA, he makes the following claim: “This book is on the record — no anonymous sources, no blind quotations, no hearsay.”
Weiner’s history contains 154 pages of end-notes keyed to comments in the text. (Numbered notes and standard scholarly citations would have been preferable, as well as an annotated bibliography providing information on where documents could be found; but what he has done is still light-years ahead of competing works.) These notes contain extensive verbatim quotations from documents, interviews, and oral histories. Weiner also observes: “The CIA has reneged on pledges made by three consecutive directors of central intelligence –- [Robert] Gates, [James] Woolsey, and [John] Deutch — to declassify records on nine major covert actions: France and Italy in the 1940s and 1950s; North Korea in the 1950s; Iran in 1953; Indonesia in 1958; Tibet in the 1950s and 1960s; and the Congo, the Dominican Republic, and Laos in the 1960s.” He is nonetheless able to supply key details on each of these operations from unofficial, but fully identified, sources.
In May 2003, after a lengthy delay, the government finally released the documents on President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s engineered regime change in Guatemala in 1954; most of the records from the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco in which a CIA-created exile army of Cubans went to their deaths or to prison in a hapless invasion of that island have been released; and the reports on the CIA’s 1953 overthrow of Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mossadeq were leaked. Weiner’s efforts and his resulting book are monuments to serious historical research in our allegedly “open society.” Still, he warns,
“While I was gathering and obtaining declassification authorization for some of the CIA records used in this book at the National Archives, the agency [the CIA] was engaged in a secret effort to reclassify many of those same records, dating back to the 1940s, flouting the law and breaking its word. Nevertheless, the work of historians, archivists, and journalists has created a foundation of documents on which a book can be built.”
As an idea, if not an actual entity, the Central Intelligence Agency came into being as a result of December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor. It functionally came to an end, as Weiner makes clear, on September 11, 2001, when operatives of al-Qaeda flew hijacked airliners into the World Trade towers in Manhattan and the Pentagon in Washington, DC. Both assaults were successful surprise attacks.
The Central Intelligence Agency itself was created during the Truman administration in order to prevent future surprise attacks like Pearl Harbor by uncovering planning for them and so forewarning against them. On September 11th, 2001, the CIA was revealed to be a failure precisely because it had been unable to discover the al-Qaeda plot and sound the alarm against a surprise attack that would prove almost as devastating as Pearl Harbor. After 9/11, the Agency, having largely discredited itself, went into a steep decline and finished the job. Weiner concludes: “Under [CIA Director George Tenet’s] leadership, the agency produced the worst body of work in its long history: a special national intelligence estimate titled ‘Iraq’s Continuing Programs for Weapons of Mass Destruction.'” It is axiomatic that, as political leaders lose faith in an intelligence agency and quit listening to it, its functional life is over, even if the people working there continue to report to their offices.
In December 1941, there was sufficient intelligence on Japanese activities for the U.S. to have been much better prepared for a surprise attack. Naval Intelligence had cracked Japanese diplomatic and military codes; radar stations and patrol flights had been authorized (but not fully deployed); and strategic knowledge of Japanese past behaviors and capabilities (if not of intentions) was adequate. The FBI had even observed the Japanese consul-general in Honolulu burning records in his backyard but reported this information only to Director J. Edgar Hoover, who did not pass it on.
Lacking was a central office to collate, analyze, and put in suitable form for presentation to the president all U.S. government information on an important issue. In 1941, there were plenty of signals about what was coming, but the U.S. government lacked the organization and expertise to distinguish true signals from the background “noise” of day-to-day communications. In the 1950s, Roberta Wohlstetter, a strategist for the Air Force’s think tank, the RAND Corporation, wrote a secret study that documented the coordination and communications failings leading up to Pearl Harbor. (Entitled Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision, it was declassified and published by Stanford University Press in 1962.)
The Legacy of the OSS
The National Security Act of 1947 created the CIA with emphasis on the word “central” in its title. The Agency was supposed to become the unifying organization that would distill and write up all available intelligence, and offer it to political leaders in a manageable form. The Act gave the CIA five functions, four of them dealing with the collection, coordination, and dissemination of intelligence from open sources as well as espionage. It was the fifth function — lodged in a vaguely worded passage that allowed the CIA to “perform such other functions and duties related to intelligence affecting the national security as the National Security Council may from time to time direct” — that turned the CIA into the personal, secret, unaccountable army of the president.
From the very beginning, the Agency failed to do what President Truman expected of it, turning at once to “cloak-and-dagger” projects that were clearly beyond its mandate and only imperfectly integrated into any grand strategy of the U.S. government. Weiner stresses that the true author of the CIA’s clandestine functions was George Kennan, the senior State Department authority on the Soviet Union and creator of the idea of “containing” the spread of communism rather than going to war with (“rolling back”) the USSR.
Kennan had been alarmed by the ease with which the Soviets were setting up satellites in Eastern Europe and he wanted to “fight fire with fire.” Others joined with him to promote this agenda, above all the veterans of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a unit that, under General William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan during World War II, had sent saboteurs behind enemy lines, disseminated disinformation and propaganda to mislead Axis forces, and tried to recruit resistance fighters in occupied countries.
On September 20, 1945, Truman had abolished the OSS — a bureaucratic victory for the Pentagon, the State Department, and the FBI, all of which considered the OSS an upstart organization that impinged on their respective jurisdictions. Many of the early leaders of the CIA were OSS veterans and devoted themselves to consolidating and entrenching their new vehicle for influence in Washington. They also passionately believed that they were people with a self-appointed mission of world-shaking importance and that, as a result, they were beyond the normal legal restraints placed on government officials.
From its inception the CIA has labored under two contradictory conceptions of what it was supposed to be doing, and no president ever succeeded in correcting or resolving this situation. Espionage and intelligence analysis seek to know the world as it is; covert action seeks to change the world, whether it understands it or not. The best CIA exemplar of the intelligence-collecting function was Richard Helms, director of central intelligence (DCI) from 1966 to 1973 (who died in 2002). The great protagonist of cloak-and-dagger work was Frank Wisner, the CIA’s director of operations from 1948 until the late 1950s when he went insane and, in 1965, committed suicide. Wisner never had any patience for espionage.
Weiner quotes William Colby, a future DCI (1973-1976), on this subject. The separation of the scholars of the research and analysis division from the spies of the clandestine service created two cultures within the intelligence profession, he said, “separate, unequal, and contemptuous of each other.” That critique remained true throughout the CIA’s first 60 years.
By 1964, the CIA’s clandestine service was consuming close to two-thirds of its budget and 90% of the director’s time. The Agency gathered under one roof Wall Street brokers, Ivy League professors, soldiers of fortune, ad men, newsmen, stunt men, second-story men, and con men. They never learned to work together — the ultimate result being a series of failures in both intelligence and covert operations. In January 1961, on leaving office after two terms, President Eisenhower had already grasped the situation fully. “Nothing has changed since Pearl Harbor,” he told his director of central intelligence, Allen Dulles. “I leave a legacy of ashes to my successor.” Weiner, of course, draws his title from Eisenhower’s metaphor. It would only get worse in the years to come.
The historical record is unequivocal. The United States is ham-handed and brutal in conceiving and executing clandestine operations, and it is simply no good at espionage; its operatives never have enough linguistic and cultural knowledge of target countries to recruit spies effectively. The CIA also appears to be one of the most easily penetrated espionage organizations on the planet. From the beginning, it repeatedly lost its assets to double agents.
Typically, in the early 1950s, the Agency dropped millions of dollars worth of gold bars, arms, two-way radios, and agents into Poland to support what its top officials believed was a powerful Polish underground movement against the Soviets. In fact, Soviet agents had wiped out the movement years before, turned key people in it into double agents, and played the CIA for suckers. As Weiner comments, not only had five years of planning, various agents, and millions of dollars “gone down the drain,” but the “unkindest cut might have been [the Agency’s] discovery that the Poles had sent a chunk of the CIA’s money to the Communist Party of Italy.” [pp. 67-68]
The story would prove unending. On February 21, 1994, the Agency finally discovered and arrested Aldrich Ames, the CIA’s chief of counterintelligence for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, who had been spying for the USSR for seven years and had sent innumerable U.S. agents before KGB firing squads. Weiner comments, “The Ames case revealed an institutional carelessness that bordered on criminal negligence.” [p. 451]
The Search for Technological Means
Over the years, in order to compensate for these serious inadequacies, the CIA turned increasingly to signals intelligence and other technological means of spying like U-2 reconnaissance aircraft and satellites. In 1952, the top leaders of the CIA created the National Security Agency — an eavesdropping and cryptological unit — to overcome the Agency’s abject failure to place any spies in North Korea during the Korean War. The Agency debacle at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba led a frustrated Pentagon to create its own Defense Intelligence Agency as a check on the military amateurism of the CIA’s clandestine service officers.
Still, technological means, whether satellite spying or electronic eavesdropping, will seldom reveal intentions — and that is the raison d’être of intelligence estimates. As Haviland Smith, who ran operations against the USSR in the 1960s and 1970s, lamented, “The only thing missing is — we don’t have anything on Soviet intentions. And I don’t know how you get that. And that’s the charter of the clandestine service [emphasis in original, pp. 360-61]).”
The actual intelligence collected was just as problematic. On the most important annual intelligence estimate throughout the Cold War — that of the Soviet order of battle — the CIA invariably overstated its size and menace. Then, to add insult to injury, under George H. W. Bush’s tenure as DCI (1976-77), the agency tore itself apart over ill-informed right-wing claims that it was actually underestimating Soviet military forces. The result was the appointment of “Team B” during the Ford presidency, led by Polish exiles and neoconservative fanatics. It was tasked to “correct” the work of the Office of National Estimates.
“After the Cold War was over,” writes Weiner, “the agency put Team B’s findings to the test. Every one of them was wrong.” [p. 352] But the problem was not simply one of the CIA succumbing to political pressure. It was also structural: “[F]or thirteen years, from Nixon’s era to the dying days of the Cold War, every estimate of Soviet strategic nuclear forces overstated [emphasis in original] the rate at which Moscow was modernizing its weaponry.” [p. 297]
From 1967 to 1973, I served as an outside consultant to the Office of National Estimates, one of about a dozen specialists brought in to try to overcome the myopia and bureaucratism involved in the writing of these national intelligence estimates. I recall agonized debates over how the mechanical highlighting of worst-case analyses of Soviet weapons was helping to promote the arms race. Some senior intelligence analysts tried to resist the pressures of the Air Force and the military-industrial complex. Nonetheless, the late John Huizenga, an erudite intelligence analyst who headed the Office of National Estimates from 1971 until the wholesale purge of the Agency by DCI James Schlesinger in 1973, bluntly said to the CIA’s historians:
“In retrospect…. I really do not believe that an intelligence organization in this government is able to deliver an honest analytical product without facing the risk of political contention. . . . I think that intelligence has had relatively little impact on the policies that we’ve made over the years. Relatively none. . . . Ideally, what had been supposed was that . . . serious intelligence analysis could…. assist the policy side to reexamine premises, render policymaking more sophisticated, closer to the reality of the world. Those were the large ambitions which I think were never realized.” [p. 353]
On the clandestine side, the human costs were much higher. The CIA’s incessant, almost always misguided, attempts to determine how other people should govern themselves; its secret support for fascists (e.g., Greece under George Papadopoulos), militarists (e.g., Chile under Gen. Augusto Pinochet), and murderers (e.g., the Congo under Joseph Mobutu); its uncritical support of death squads (El Salvador) and religious fanatics (Muslim fundamentalists in Afghanistan) — all these and more activities combined to pepper the world with blowback movements against the United States.
Nothing has done more to undercut the reputation of the United States than the CIA’s “clandestine” (only in terms of the American people) murders of the presidents of South Vietnam and the Congo, its ravishing of the governments of Iran, Indonesia (three times), South Korea (twice), all of the Indochinese states, virtually every government in Latin America, and Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The deaths from these armed assaults run into the millions. After 9/11, President Bush asked “Why do they hate us?” From Iran (1953) to Iraq (2003), the better question would be, “Who does not?”
The Cash Nexus
There is a major exception to this portrait of long-term Agency incompetence. “One weapon the CIA used with surpassing skill,” Weiner writes, “was cold cash. The agency excelled at buying the services of foreign politicians.” [p. 116] It started with the Italian elections of April 1948. The CIA did not yet have a secure source of clandestine money and had to raise it secretly from Wall Street operators, rich Italian-Americans, and others.
“The millions were delivered to Italian politicians and the priests of Catholic Action, a political arm of the Vatican. Suitcases filed with cash changed hands in the four-star Hassler Hotel. . . . Italy’s Christian Democrats won by a comfortable margin and formed a government that excluded communists. A long romance between the [Christian Democratic] party and the agency began. The CIA’s practice of purchasing elections and politicians with bags of cash was repeated in Italy — and in many other countries — for the next twenty-five years.” [p. 27]
The CIA ultimately spent at least $65 million on Italy’s politicians — including “every Christian Democrat who ever won a national election in Italy.” [p. 298] As the Marshall Plan to reconstruct Europe got up to speed in the late 1940s, the CIA secretly skimmed the money it needed from Marshall Plan accounts. After the Plan ended, secret funds buried in the annual Defense appropriation bill continued to finance the CIA’s operations.
After Italy, the CIA moved on to Japan, paying to bring Nobusuke Kishi to power as Japan’s prime minister (in office 1957-1960), the country’s World War II minister of munitions. It ultimately used its financial muscle to entrench the (conservative) Liberal Democratic Party in power and to turn Japan into a single-party state, which it remains to this day. The cynicism with which the CIA continued to subsidize “democratic” elections in Western Europe, Latin America, and East Asia, starting in the late 1950s, led to disillusionment with the United States and a distinct blunting of the idealism with which it had waged the early Cold War.
Another major use for its money was a campaign to bankroll alternatives in Western Europe to Soviet-influenced newspapers and books. Attempting to influence the attitudes of students and intellectuals, the CIA sponsored literary magazines in Germany (Der Monat) and Britain (Encounter), promoted abstract expressionism in art as a radical alternative to the Soviet Union’s socialist realism, and secretly funded the publication and distribution of over two and a half million books and periodicals. Weiner treats these activities rather cursorily. He should have consulted Frances Stonor Saunders’ indispensable The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters.
Despite all this, the CIA was protected from criticism by its impenetrable secrecy and by the tireless propaganda efforts of such leaders as Allen W. Dulles, director of the Agency under President Eisenhower, and Richard Bissell, chief of the clandestine service after Wisner. Even when the CIA seemed to fail at everything it undertook, writes Weiner, “The ability to represent failure as success was becoming a CIA tradition.” [p. 58]
After the Chinese intervention in the Korean War, the CIA dropped 212 foreign agents into Manchuria. Within a matter of days, 101 had been killed and the other 111 captured — but this information was effectively suppressed. The CIA’s station chief in Seoul, Albert R. Haney, an incompetent army colonel and intelligence fabricator, never suspected that the hundreds of agents he claimed to have working for him all reported to North Korean control officers.
Haney survived his incredible performance in the Korean War because, at the end of his tour in November 1952, he helped to arrange for the transportation of a grievously wounded Marine lieutenant back to the United States. That Marine turned out to be the son of Allen Dulles, who repaid his debt of gratitude by putting Haney in charge of the covert operation that — despite a largely bungled, badly directed secret campaign — did succeed in overthrowing the Guatemalan government of President Jacobo Arbenz in 1954. The CIA’s handiwork in Guatemala ultimately led to the deaths of 200,000 civilians during the 40 years of bloodshed and civil war that followed the sabotage of an elected government for the sake of the United Fruit Company.
Weiner has made innumerable contributions to many hidden issues of postwar foreign policy, some of them still on-going. For example, during the debate over America’s invasion of Iraq after 2003, one of the constant laments was that the CIA did not have access to a single agent inside Saddam Hussein’s inner circle. That was not true. Ironically, the intelligence service of France — a country U.S. politicians publicly lambasted for its failure to support us — had cultivated Naji Sabri, Iraq’s foreign minister. Sabri told the French agency, and through it the American government, that Saddam Hussein did not have an active nuclear or biological weapons program, but the CIA ignored him. Weiner comments ruefully, “The CIA had almost no ability to analyze accurately what little intelligence it had.” [pp. 666-67, n. 487]
Perhaps the most comical of all CIA clandestine activities — unfortunately all too typical of its covert operations over the last 60 years — was the spying it did in 1994 on the newly appointed American ambassador to Guatemala, Marilyn McAfee, who sought to promote policies of human rights and justice in that country. Loyal to the murderous Guatemalan intelligence service, the CIA had bugged her bedroom and picked up sounds that led their agents to conclude that the ambassador was having a lesbian love affair with her secretary, Carol Murphy. The CIA station chief “recorded her cooing endearments to Murphy.” The agency spread the word in Washington that the liberal ambassador was a lesbian without realizing that “Murphy” was also the name of her two-year-old black standard poodle. The bug in her bedroom had recorded her petting her dog. She was actually a married woman from a conservative family. [p. 459]
Back in August 1945, General William Donovan, the head of the OSS, said to President Truman, “Prior to the present war, the United States had no foreign intelligence service. It never has had and does not now have a coordinated intelligence system.” Weiner adds, “Tragically, it still does not have one.” I agree with Weiner’s assessment, but based on his truly exemplary analysis of the Central Intelligence Agency in Legacy of Ashes, I do not think that this is a tragedy. Given his evidence, it is hard to believe that the United States would not have been better off if it had left intelligence collection and analysis to the State Department and had assigned infrequent covert actions to the Pentagon.
I believe that this is where we stand today: The CIA has failed badly, and it would be an important step toward a restoration of the checks and balances within our political system simply to abolish it. Some observers argue that this would be an inadequate remedy because what the government now ostentatiously calls the “intelligence community” — complete with its own website — is composed of 16 discrete and competitive intelligence organizations ready to step into the CIA’s shoes. This, however, is a misunderstanding. Most of the members of the so-called intelligence community are bureaucratic appendages of well-established departments or belong to extremely technical units whose functions have nothing at all to do with either espionage or cloak-and-dagger adventures.
The sixteen entities include the intelligence organizations of each military service — the Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marine Corps, Navy, and the Defense Intelligence Agency — and reflect inter-service rivalries more than national needs or interests; the departments of Energy, Homeland Security, State, Treasury, and Drug Enforcement Administration, as well as the FBI and the National Security Agency; and the units devoted to satellites and reconnaissance (National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, National Reconnaissance Office). The only one of these units that could conceivably compete with the CIA is the one that I recommend to replace it — namely, the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR). Interestingly enough, it had by far the best record of any U.S. intelligence entity in analyzing Iraq under Saddam Hussein and estimating what was likely to happen if we pursued the Bush administration’s misconceived scheme of invading his country. Its work was, of course, largely ignored by the Bush-Cheney White House.
Weiner does not cover every single aspect of the record of the CIA, but his book is one of the best possible places for a serious citizen to begin to understand the depths to which our government has sunk. It also brings home the lesson that an incompetent or unscrupulous intelligence agency can be as great a threat to national security as not having one at all.
Chalmers Johnson’s latest book is Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic (Metropolitan Books, 2007). It is the third volume of his Blowback Trilogy, which also includes Blowback and The Sorrows of Empire. A retired professor of international relations from the University of California (Berkeley and San Diego campuses) and the author of some seventeen books primarily on the politics and economics of East Asia, Johnson is president of the Japan Policy Research Institute.
Copyright 2007 Chalmers Johnson
July 19, 2007
Generation Chickenhawk: the Unauthorized College Republican Convention Tour
watch the video http://vimeo.com/244640
On July 13, 2007, I visited Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, where the bodies of American soldiers killed in Iraq were freshly interred. Afterwards, I headed across the street to the Sheraton National Hotel, owned by right-wing Korean cult leader Sun Myung-Moon, to meet some of the war’s most fervent supporters at the College Republican National Convention.
In conversations with at least twenty College Republicans about the war in Iraq, I listened as they lip-synched discredited cant about “fighting them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here.” Many of the young GOP cadres I met described the so-called “war on terror” as nothing less than the cause of their time.
Yet when I asked these College Repulicans why they were not participating in this historical cause, they immediately went into contortions. Asthma. Bad knees from playing catcher in high school. “Medical reasons.” “It’s not for me.” These were some of the excuses College Republicans offered for why they could not fight them “over there.” Like the current Republican leaders who skipped out on Vietnam, the GOP’s next generation would rather cheerlead from the sidelines for the war in Iraq while other, less privileged young men and women fight and die.
Along with videographer Thomas Shomaker, I captured a vivid portrait of the hypocritical mentality of the next generation of Republican leaders. See for yourself.
July 19, 2007
Why Are So Many Americans in Prison?
Race and the transformation of criminal justice
Glenn C. Loury
8 The early 1990s were the age of drive-by shootings, drug deals gone bad, crack cocaine, and gangsta rap. Between 1960 and 1990, the annual number of murders in New Haven rose from six to 31, the number of rapes from four to 168, the number of robberies from 16 to 1,784—all this while the city’s population declined by 14 percent. Crime was concentrated in central cities: in 1990, two fifths of Pennsylvania’s violent crimes were committed in Philadelphia, home to one seventh of the state’s population. The subject of crime dominated American domestic-policy debates.
Most observers at the time expected things to get worse. Consulting demographic tables and extrapolating trends, scholars and pundits warned the public to prepare for an onslaught, and for a new kind of criminal—the anomic, vicious, irreligious, amoral juvenile “super-predator.” In 1996, one academic commentator predicted a “bloodbath” of juvenile homicides in 2005.
And so we prepared. Stoked by fear and political opportunism, but also by the need to address a very real social problem, we threw lots of people in jail, and when the old prisons were filled we built new ones.
But the onslaught never came. Crime rates peaked in 1992 and have dropped sharply since. Even as crime rates fell, however, imprisonment rates remained high and continued their upward march. The result, the current American prison system, is a leviathan unmatched in human history.
According to a 2005 report of the International Centre for Prison Studies in London, the United States—with five percent of the world’s population—houses 25 percent of the world’s inmates. Our incarceration rate (714 per 100,000 residents) is almost 40 percent greater than those of our nearest competitors (the Bahamas, Belarus, and Russia). Other industrial democracies, even those with significant crime problems of their own, are much less punitive: our incarceration rate is 6.2 times that of Canada, 7.8 times that of France, and 12.3 times that of Japan. We have a corrections sector that employs more Americans than the combined work forces of General Motors, Ford, and Wal-Mart, the three largest corporate employers in the country, and we are spending some $200 billion annually on law enforcement and corrections at all levels of government, a fourfold increase (in constant dollars) over the past quarter century.
Never before has a supposedly free country denied basic liberty to so many of its citizens. In December 2006, some 2.25 million persons were being held in the nearly 5,000 prisons and jails that are scattered across America’s urban and rural landscapes. One third of inmates in state prisons are violent criminals, convicted of homicide, rape, or robbery. But the other two thirds consist mainly of property and drug offenders. Inmates are disproportionately drawn from the most disadvantaged parts of society. On average, state inmates have fewer than 11 years of schooling. They are also vastly disproportionately black and brown.
How did it come to this? One argument is that the massive increase in incarceration reflects the success of a rational public policy: faced with a compelling social problem, we responded by imprisoning people and succeeded in lowering crime rates. This argument is not entirely misguided. Increased incarceration does appear to have reduced crime somewhat. But by how much? Estimates of the share of the 1990s reduction in violent crime that can be attributed to the prison boom range from five percent to 25 percent. Whatever the number, analysts of all political stripes now agree that we have long ago entered the zone of diminishing returns. The conservative scholar John DiIulio, who coined the term “super-predator” in the early 1990s, was by the end of that decade declaring in The Wall Street Journal that “Two Million Prisoners Are Enough.” But there was no political movement for getting America out of the mass-incarceration business. The throttle was stuck.
A more convincing argument is that imprisonment rates have continued to rise while crime rates have fallen because we have become progressively more punitive: not because crime has continued to explode (it hasn’t), not because we made a smart policy choice, but because we have made a collective decision to increase the rate of punishment.
One simple measure of punitiveness is the likelihood that a person who is arrested will be subsequently incarcerated. Between 1980 and 2001, there was no real change in the chances of being arrested in response to a complaint: the rate was just under 50 percent. But the likelihood that an arrest would result in imprisonment more than doubled, from 13 to 28 percent. And because the amount of time served and the rate of prison admission both increased, the incarceration rate for violent crime almost tripled, despite the decline in the level of violence. The incarceration rate for nonviolent and drug offenses increased at an even faster pace: between 1980 and 1997 the number of people incarcerated for nonviolent offenses tripled, and the number of people incarcerated for drug offenses increased by a factor of 11. Indeed, the criminal-justice researcher Alfred Blumstein has argued that none of the growth in incarceration between 1980 and 1996 can be attributed to more crime:
The growth was entirely attributable to a growth in punitiveness, about equally to growth in prison commitments per arrest (an indication of tougher prosecution or judicial sentencing) and to longer time served (an indication of longer sentences, elimination of parole or later parole release, or greater readiness to recommit parolees to prison for either technical violations or new crimes).
This growth in punitiveness was accompanied by a shift in thinking about the basic purpose of criminal justice. In the 1970s, the sociologist David Garland argues, the corrections system was commonly seen as a way to prepare offenders to rejoin society. Since then, the focus has shifted from rehabilitation to punishment and stayed there. Felons are no longer persons to be supported, but risks to be dealt with. And the way to deal with the risks is to keep them locked up. As of 2000, 33 states had abolished limited parole (up from 17 in 1980); 24 states had introduced three-strikes laws (up from zero); and 40 states had introduced truth-in-sentencing laws (up from three). The vast majority of these changes occurred in the 1990s, as crime rates fell.
This new system of punitive ideas is aided by a new relationship between the media, the politicians, and the public. A handful of cases—in which a predator does an awful thing to an innocent—get excessive media attention and engender public outrage. This attention typically bears no relation to the frequency of the particular type of crime, and yet laws—such as three-strikes laws that give mandatory life sentences to nonviolent drug offenders—and political careers are made on the basis of the public’s reaction to the media coverage of such crimes.
* * *
Despite a sharp national decline in crime, American criminal justice has become crueler and less caring than it has been at any other time in our modern history. Why?
The question has no simple answer, but the racial composition of prisons is a good place to start. The punitive turn in the nation’s social policy—intimately connected with public rhetoric about responsibility, dependency, social hygiene, and the reclamation of public order—can be fully grasped only when viewed against the backdrop of America’s often ugly and violent racial history: there is a reason why our inclination toward forgiveness and the extension of a second chance to those who have violated our behavioral strictures is so stunted, and why our mainstream political discourses are so bereft of self-examination and searching social criticism. This historical resonance between the stigma of race and the stigma of imprisonment serves to keep alive in our public culture the subordinating social meanings that have always been associated with blackness. Race helps to explain why the United States is exceptional among the democratic industrial societies in the severity and extent of its punitive policy and in the paucity of its social-welfare institutions.
Slavery ended a long time ago, but the institution of chattel slavery and the ideology of racial subordination that accompanied it have cast a long shadow. I speak here of the history of lynching throughout the country; the racially biased policing and judging in the South under Jim Crow and in the cities of the Northeast, Midwest, and West to which blacks migrated after the First and Second World Wars; and the history of racial apartheid that ended only as a matter of law with the civil-rights movement. It should come as no surprise that in the post–civil rights era, race, far from being peripheral, has been central to the evolution of American social policy.
The political scientist Vesla Mae Weaver, in a recently completed dissertation, examines policy history, public opinion, and media processes in an attempt to understand the role of race in this historic transformation of criminal justice. She argues—persuasively, I think—that the punitive turn represented a political response to the success of the civil-rights movement. Weaver describes a process of “frontlash” in which opponents of the civil-rights revolution sought to regain the upper hand by shifting to a new issue. Rather than reacting directly to civil-rights developments, and thus continuing to fight a battle they had lost, those opponents—consider George Wallace’s campaigns for the presidency, which drew so much support in states like Michigan and Wisconsin—shifted attention to a seemingly race-neutral concern over crime:
Once the clutch of Jim Crow had loosened, opponents of civil rights shifted the “locus of attack” by injecting crime onto the agenda. Through the process of frontlash, rivals of civil rights progress defined racial discord as criminal and argued that crime legislation would be a panacea to racial unrest. This strategy both imbued crime with race and depoliticized racial struggle, a formula which foreclosed earlier “root causes” alternatives. Fusing anxiety about crime to anxiety over racial change and riots, civil rights and racial disorder—initially defined as a problem of minority disenfranchisement—were defined as a crime problem, which helped shift debate from social reform to punishment.
Of course, this argument (for which Weaver adduces considerable circumstantial evidence) is speculative. But something interesting seems to have been going on in the late 1960s regarding the relationship between attitudes on race and social policy.
Before 1965, public attitudes on the welfare state and on race, as measured by the annually administered General Social Survey, varied year to year independently of one another: you could not predict much about a person’s attitudes on welfare politics by knowing their attitudes about race. After 1965, the attitudes moved in tandem, as welfare came to be seen as a race issue. Indeed, the year-to-year correlation between an index measuring liberalism of racial attitudes and attitudes toward the welfare state over the interval 1950–1965 was .03. These same two series had a correlation of .68 over the period 1966–1996. The association in the American mind of race with welfare, and of race with crime, has been achieved at a common historical moment. Crime-control institutions are part of a larger social-policy complex—they relate to and interact with the labor market, family-welfare efforts, and health and social-work activities. Indeed, Garland argues that the ideological approaches to welfare and crime control have marched rightward to a common beat: “The institutional and cultural changes that have occurred in the crime control field are analogous to those that have occurred in the welfare state more generally.” Just as the welfare state came to be seen as a race issue, so, too, crime came to be seen as a race issue, and policies have been shaped by this perception.
Consider the tortured racial history of the War on Drugs. Blacks were twice as likely as whites to be arrested for a drug offense in 1975 but four times as likely by 1989. Throughout the 1990s, drug-arrest rates remained at historically unprecedented levels. Yet according to the National Survey on Drug Abuse, drug use among adults fell from 20 percent in 1979 to 11 percent in 2000. A similar trend occurred among adolescents. In the age groups 12–17 and 18–25, use of marijuana, cocaine, and heroin all peaked in the late 1970s and began a steady decline thereafter. Thus, a decline in drug use across the board had begun a decade before the draconian anti-drug efforts of the 1990s were initiated.
Of course, most drug arrests are for trafficking, not possession, so usage rates and arrest rates needn’t be expected to be identical. Still, we do well to bear in mind that the social problem of illicit drug use is endemic to our whole society. Significantly, throughout the period 1979–2000, white high-school seniors reported using drugs at a significantly higher rate than black high-school seniors. High drug-usage rates in white, middle-class American communities in the early 1980s accounts for the urgency many citizens felt to mount a national attack on the problem. But how successful has the effort been, and at what cost?
Think of the cost this way: to save middle-class kids from the threat of a drug epidemic that might not have even existed by the time that drug incarceration began its rapid increase in the 1980s, we criminalized underclass kids. Arrests went up, but drug prices have fallen sharply over the past 20 years—suggesting that the ratcheting up of enforcement has not made drugs harder to get on the street. The strategy clearly wasn’t keeping drugs away from those who sought them. Not only are prices down, but the data show that drug-related visits to emergency rooms also rose steadily throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
An interesting case in point is New York City. Analyzing arrests by residential neighborhood and police precinct, the criminologist Jeffrey Fagan and his colleagues Valerie West and Jan Holland found that incarceration was highest in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, though these were often not the neighborhoods in which crime rates were the highest. Moreover, they discovered a perverse effect of incarceration on crime: higher incarceration in a given neighborhood in one year seemed to predict higher crime rates in that same neighborhood one year later. This growth and persistence of incarceration over time, the authors concluded, was due primarily to the drug enforcement practices of police and to sentencing laws that require imprisonment for repeat felons. Police scrutiny was more intensive and less forgiving in high-incarceration neighborhoods, and parolees returning to such neighborhoods were more closely monitored. Thus, discretionary and spatially discriminatory police behavior led to a high and increasing rate of repeat prison admissions in the designated neighborhoods, even as crime rates fell.
Fagan, West, and Holland explain the effects of spatially concentrated urban anti-drug-law enforcement in the contemporary American metropolis. Buyers may come from any neighborhood and any social stratum. But the sellers—at least the ones who can be readily found hawking their wares on street corners and in public vestibules—come predominantly from the poorest, most non-white parts of the city. The police, with arrest quotas to meet, know precisely where to find them. The researchers conclude:
Incarceration begets more incarceration, and incarceration also begets more crime, which in turn invites more aggressive enforcement, which then re-supplies incarceration . . . three mechanisms . . . contribute to and reinforce incarceration in neighborhoods: the declining economic fortunes of former inmates and the effects on neighborhoods where they tend to reside, resource and relationship strains on families of prisoners that weaken the family’s ability to supervise children, and voter disenfranchisement that weakens the political economy of neighborhoods.
The effects of imprisonment on life chances are profound. For incarcerated black men, hourly wages are ten percent lower after prison than before. For all incarcerated men, the number of weeks worked per year falls by at least a third after their release.
So consider the nearly 60 percent of black male high-school dropouts born in the late 1960s who are imprisoned before their 40th year. While locked up, these felons are stigmatized—they are regarded as fit subjects for shaming. Their links to family are disrupted; their opportunities for work are diminished; their voting rights may be permanently revoked. They suffer civic excommunication. Our zeal for social discipline consigns these men to a permanent nether caste. And yet, since these men—whatever their shortcomings—have emotional and sexual and family needs, including the need to be fathers and lovers and husbands, we are creating a situation where the children of this nether caste are likely to join a new generation of untouchables. This cycle will continue so long as incarceration is viewed as the primary path to social hygiene.
* * *
I have been exploring the issue of causes: of why we took the punitive turn that has resulted in mass incarceration. But even if the racial argument about causes is inconclusive, the racial consequences are clear. To be sure, in the United States, as in any society, public order is maintained by the threat and use of force. We enjoy our good lives only because we are shielded by the forces of law and order, which keep the unruly at bay. Yet in this society, to a degree virtually unmatched in any other, those bearing the brunt of order enforcement belong in vastly disproportionate numbers to historically marginalized racial groups. Crime and punishment in America has a color.
In his fine study Punishment and Inequality in America (2006), the Princeton University sociologist Bruce Western powerfully describes the scope, nature, and consequences of contemporary imprisonment. He finds that the extent of racial disparity in imprisonment rates is greater than in any other major arena of American social life: at eight to one, the black–white ratio of incarceration rates dwarfs the two-to-one ratio of unemployment rates, the three-to-one ration of non-marital childbearing, the two-to-one ratio of infant-mortality rates and one-to-five ratio of net worth. While three out of 200 young whites were incarcerated in 2000, the rate for young blacks was one in nine. A black male resident of the state of California is more likely to go to a state prison than a state college.
The scandalous truth is that the police and penal apparatus are now the primary contact between adult black American men and the American state. Among black male high-school dropouts aged 20 to 40, a third were locked up on any given day in 2000, fewer than three percent belonged to a union, and less than one quarter were enrolled in any kind of social program. Coercion is the most salient meaning of government for these young men.¬†Western estimates that nearly 60 percent of black male dropouts born between 1965 and 1969 were sent to prison on a felony conviction at least once before they reached the age of 35.
One cannot reckon the world-historic American prison build-up over the past 35 years without calculating the enormous costs imposed upon the persons imprisoned, their families, and their communities. (Of course, this has not stopped many social scientists from pronouncing on the net benefits of incarceration without doing so.) Deciding on the weight to give to a “thug’s” well-being—or to that of his wife or daughter or son—is a question of social morality, not social science. Nor can social science tell us how much additional cost borne by the offending class is justified in order to obtain a given increment of security or property or peace of mind for the rest of us. These are questions about the nature of the American state and its relationship to its people that transcend the categories of benefits and costs.
Yet the discourse surrounding punishment policy invariably discounts the humanity of the thieves, drug sellers, prostitutes, rapists, and, yes, those whom we put to death. It gives insufficient weight to the welfare, to the humanity, of those who are knitted together with offenders in webs of social and psychic affiliation. What is more, institutional arrangements for dealing with criminal offenders in the United States have evolved to serve expressive as well as instrumental ends. We have wanted to “send a message,” and we have done so with a vengeance. In the process, we have created facts. We have answered the question, who is to blame for the domestic maladies that beset us? We have constructed a national narrative. We have created scapegoats, indulged our need to feel virtuous, and assuaged our fears. We have met the enemy, and the enemy is them.
Incarceration keeps them away from us. Thus Garland: “The prison is used today as a kind of reservation, a quarantine zone in which purportedly dangerous individuals are segregated in the name of public safety.” The boundary between prison and community, Garland continues, is “heavily patrolled and carefully monitored to prevent risks leaking out from one to the other. Those offenders who are released ‘into the community’ are subject to much tighter control than previously, and frequently find themselves returned to custody for failure to comply with the conditions that continue to restrict their freedom. For many of these parolees and ex-convicts, the ‘community’ into which they are released is actually a closely monitored terrain, a supervised space, lacking much of the liberty that one associates with ‘normal life’.”
Deciding how citizens of varied social rank within a common polity ought to relate to one another is a more fundamental consideration than deciding which crime-control policy is most efficient. The question of relationship, of solidarity, of who belongs to the body politic and who deserves exclusion—these are philosophical concerns of the highest order. A decent society will on occasion resist the efficient course of action, for the simple reason that to follow it would be to act as though we were not the people we have determined ourselves to be: a people conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that we all are created equal. Assessing the propriety of creating a racially defined pariah class in the middle of our great cities at the start of the 21st century presents us with just such a case.
My recitation of the brutal facts about punishment in today’s America may sound to some like a primal scream at this monstrous social machine that is grinding poor black communities to dust. And I confess that these brutal facts do at times incline me to cry out in despair. But my argument is analytical, not existential. Its principal thesis is this: we law-abiding, middle-class Americans have made decisions about social policy and incarceration, and we benefit from those decisions, and that means from a system of suffering, rooted in state violence, meted out at our request. We had choices and we decided to be more punitive. Our society—the society we have made—creates criminogenic conditions in our sprawling urban ghettos, and then acts out rituals of punishment against them as some awful form of human sacrifice.
This situation raises a moral problem that we cannot avoid. We cannot pretend that there are more important problems in our society, or that this circumstance is the necessary solution to other, more pressing problems—unless we are also prepared to say that we have turned our backs on the ideal of equality for all citizens and abandoned the principles of justice. We ought to ask ourselves two questions: Just what manner of people are we Americans? And in light of this, what are our obligations to our fellow citizens—even those who break our laws?
* * *
To address these questions, we need to think about the evaluation of our prison system as a problem in the theory of distributive justice—not the purely procedural idea of ensuring equal treatment before the law and thereafter letting the chips fall where they may, but the rather more demanding ideal of substantive racial justice. The goal is to bring about through conventional social policy and far-reaching institutional reforms a situation in which the history of racial oppression is no longer so evident in the disparate life experiences of those who descend from slaves.
And I suggest we approach that problem from the perspective of John Rawls’s theory of justice: first, that we think about justice from an “original position” behind a “veil of ignorance” that obstructs from view our own situation, including our class, race, gender, and talents. We need to ask what rules we would pick if we seriously imagined that we could turn out to be anyone in the society. Second, following Rawls’s “difference principle,” we should permit inequalities only if they work to improve the circumstances of the least advantaged members of society. But here, the object of moral inquiry is not the distribution among individuals of wealth and income, but instead the distribution of a negative good, punishment, among individuals and, importantly, racial groups.
So put yourself in John Rawls’s original position and imagine that you could occupy any rank in the social hierarchy. Let me be more concrete: imagine that you could be born a black American male outcast shuffling between prison and the labor market on his way to an early death to the chorus of nigger or criminal or dummy. Suppose we had to stop thinking of us and them. What social rules would we pick if we actually thought that they could be us? I expect that we would still pick some set of punishment institutions to contain bad behavior and protect society. But wouldn’t we pick arrangements that respected the humanity of each individual and of those they are connected to through bonds of social and psychic affiliation? If any one of us had a real chance of being one of those faces looking up from the bottom of the well—of being the least among us¬—then how would we talk publicly about those who break our laws? What would we do with juveniles who go awry, who roam the streets with guns and sometimes commit acts of violence? What weight would we give to various elements in the deterrence-retribution-incapacitation-rehabilitation calculus, if we thought that calculus could end up being applied to our own children, or to us? How would we apportion blame and affix responsibility for the cultural and social pathologies evident in some quarters of our society if we envisioned that we ourselves might well have been born into the social margins where such pathology flourishes?
If we take these questions as seriously as we should, then we would, I expect, reject a pure ethic of personal responsibility as the basis for distributing punishment. Issues about responsibility are complex, and involve a kind of division of labor—what John Rawls called a “social division of responsibility” between “citizens as a collective body” and individuals: when we hold a person responsible for his or her conduct—by establishing laws, investing in their enforcement, and consigning some persons to prisons—we need also to think about whether we have done our share in ensuring that each person faces a decent set of opportunities for a good life. We need to ask whether we as a society have fulfilled our collective responsibility to ensure fair conditions for each person—for each life that might turn out to be our life.
We would, in short, recognize a kind of social responsibility, even for the wrongful acts freely chosen by individual persons. I am not arguing that people commit crimes because they have no choices, and that in this sense the “root causes” of crime are social; individuals always have choices. My point is that responsibility is a matter of ethics, not social science. Society at large is implicated in an individual person’s choices because we have acquiesced in—perhaps actively supported, through our taxes and votes, words and deeds—social arrangements that work to our benefit and his detriment, and which shape his consciousness and sense of identity in such a way that the choices he makes, which we may condemn, are nevertheless compelling to him—an entirely understandable response to circumstance. Closed and bounded social structures—like racially homogeneous urban ghettos—create contexts where “pathological” and “dysfunctional” cultural forms emerge; but these forms are neither intrinsic to the people caught in these structures nor independent of the behavior of people who stand outside them.
Thus, a central reality of our time is the fact that there has opened a wide racial gap in the acquisition of cognitive skills, the extent of law-abidingness, the stability of family relations, the attachment to the work force, and the like. This disparity in human development is, as a historical matter, rooted in political, economic, social, and cultural factors peculiar to this society and reflective of its unlovely racial history: it is a societal, not communal or personal, achievement. At the level of the individual case we must, of course, act as if this were not so. There could be no law, no civilization, without the imputation to particular persons of responsibility for their wrongful acts. But the sum of a million cases, each one rightly judged on its merits to be individually fair, may nevertheless constitute a great historic wrong. The state does not only deal with individual cases. It also makes policies in the aggregate, and the consequences of these policies are more or less knowable. And who can honestly say—who can look in the mirror and say with a straight face—that we now have laws and policies that we would endorse if we did not know our own situation and genuinely considered the possibility that we might be the least advantaged?
Even if the current racial disparity in punishment in our country gave evidence of no overt racial discrimination—and, perhaps needless to say, I view that as a wildly optimistic supposition—it would still be true that powerful forces are at work to perpetuate the consequences of a universally acknowledged wrongful past. This is in the first instance a matter of interpretation—of the narrative overlay that we impose upon the facts.
The tacit association in the American public’s imagination of “blackness” with “unworthiness” or “dangerousness” has obscured a fundamental ethical point about responsibility, both collective and individual, and promoted essentialist causal misattributions: when confronted by the facts of racially disparate achievement, racially disproportionate crime rates, and racially unequal school achievement, observers will have difficulty identifying with the plight of a group of people whom they (mistakenly) think are simply “reaping what they have sown.” Thus, the enormous racial disparity in the imposition of social exclusion, civic ex-communication, and lifelong disgrace has come to seem legitimate, even necessary: we fail to see how our failures as a collective body are implicated in this disparity. We shift all the responsibility onto their shoulders, only by irresponsibly—indeed, immorally—denying our own. And yet, this entire dynamic has its roots in past unjust acts that were perpetrated on the basis of race.
Given our history, producing a racially defined nether caste through the ostensibly neutral application of law should be profoundly offensive to our ethical sensibilities—to the principles we proudly assert as our own. Mass incarceration has now become a principal vehicle for the reproduction of racial hierarchy in our society. Our country’s policymakers need to do something about it. And all of us are ultimately responsible for making sure that they do. <
Glenn C. Loury is the Merton P. Stoltz Professor of the Social Sciences in the department of economics at Brown University. He is the author of The Anatomy of Racial Inequality, and he was a 2002 Carnegie Scholar.
Originally published in the July/August 2007 issue of Boston Review.
July 12, 2007
Titus Lucretius Carus (c.99-55 BCE)
was a Roman philosopher and poet whose great work is the 6 part poem called De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things).
Very little is known about his life.
He asserted that although gods do exist, they have no influence on the lives of humans and the universe was not designed by a deity but was the result of random natural events.
Lucretius believed that the source of human unhappiness was in our fear of the gods and of death.
“Such evil deeds could religion prompt.” De Rerum Natura
“Fear is the mother of all gods.”
“Nature does all things spontaneously, by herself, without the meddling of the gods.”
On the Nature of Things….
No single thing abides; but all things flow.
Fragment to fragment clings-the things thus grow
Until we know and name them. By degrees
They melt, and are no more the things we know.
Globed from the atoms falling slow or swift
I see the suns, I see the systems lift
Their forms; and even the systems and the suns
Shall go back slowly to the eternal drift.
You too, oh earth-your empires, lands, and seas-
Least with your stars, of all the galaxies,
Globed from the drift like these, like these you too
Shalt go. You are going, hour by hour, like these.
Nothing abides. The seas in delicate haze
Go off; those mooned sands forsake their place;
And where they are, shall other seas in turn
Mow with their scythes of whiteness other bays.
The seeds that once were we take flight and fly,
Winnowed to earth, or whirled along the sky,
Not lost but disunited. Life lives on.
It is the lives, the lives, the lives, that die.
They go beyond recapture and recall,
Lost in the all-indissoluble All:-
Gone like the rainbow from the fountain’s foam,
Gone like the spindrift shuddering down the squall.
Flakes of the water, on the waters cease!
Soul of the body, melt and sleep like these.
Atoms to atoms-weariness to rest –
Ashes to ashes-hopes and fears to peace!
O Science, lift aloud your voice that stills
The pulse of fear, and through the conscience thrills-
Thrills through the conscience with the news of peace-
How beautiful your feet are on the hills!
A History of Western Philosophy – Bertrand Russell
Why I am not a Christian – Bertrand Russell
The Best of Humanism – R.E Greeley
“I worked in the Counterproliferation Division of the CIA, still as a covert officer whose affiliation with the CIA was classified.”
– Valerie Wilson, under oath, March 2007
Bashing their victims is a tried and true Republican tactic. Now, desperate to divert attention from suspicions that Pres. Bush petit-pardoned Scooter Libby to buy his silence on White House malfeasance, they’re doing it to Valerie Wilson — again.
Last week they trotted out the thoroughly debunked claim that Wilson was not covert at the time Team Cheney outed her. If her status was covert, the men who betrayed her identity — Richard Armitage, Karl Rove Scooter Libby and Ari Fleischer, under the direction of Vice Pres. Dick Cheney — could have violated the Intelligence Identities Protection Act (IIPA).
Here are three solid sources that make it clear that Valerie Wilson was a covert CIA agent in July 2003:
1. In a court filing in May, special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald stated Wilson was covert:
An unclassified summary of outed CIA officer Valerie Plame’s employment history at the spy agency, disclosed for the first time today in a court filing by Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald, indicates that Plame was “covert” when her name became public in July 2003.
If Fitzgerald submitted false documents to the court, we can assume the jackals on the right would have found this out by now and his head would be on a pike.
2. Valerie Wilson’s sworn testimony before the Oversight Committee of the House of Representatives:
I worked in the Counterproliferation Division of the CIA, still as a covert officer whose affiliation with the CIA was classified.
Same as above. Wilson would be facing prison right now for lying under oath, if Republicans had evidence that this statement was false.
3. The CIA has said Wilson was covert — twice:
At the Oversight hearing in March, Chairman Henry Waxman, D-West Hollywood, read a statement that had been approved by the head of the CIA, Gen. Michael Hayden, a Bush appointee:
“During her employment at the CIA, Ms. Wilson was undercover. Her employment status with the CIA was classified information, prohibited from disclosure under Executive Order 12958. At the time of the publication of Robert Novak’s column on July 14, 2003, Ms. Wilson’s CIA employment status was covert. This was classified information. Ms. Wilson served in senior management positions at the CIA in which she oversaw the work for other CIA employees and she attained the level of GS-14 — Step Six under the federal pay scale. Ms. Wilson worked on some of the most sensitive and highly secretive matters handled by the CIA. Ms. Wilson served at various times overseas for the CIA.”
Two months after she was outed, the CIA described Wilson as being an “undercover operative” in a letter to the Dept. of Justice:
On September 16, 2003 the CIA sent a letter to the US Department of Justice, asserting that Plame’s status as a CIA undercover operative was classified information and requesting a federal investigation. Knowingly leaking the identity of a covert agent is a criminal violation of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act (IIPA), and the CIA is required by law to report any such possible criminal violation.
Leaving IIPA aside, the Bush officials who publicized Wilson’s name clearly violated the terms of their high level security clearances, the penalties for which include losing the clearance. But both Armitage and Libby kept their clearances until they resigned. Rove still has his.
July 5, 2007
1. THE RULE OF THE MARKET. Liberating “free” enterprise or private enterprise from any bonds imposed by the government (the state) no matter how much social damage this causes. Greater openness to international trade and investment, as in NAFTA. Reduce wages by de-unionizing workers and eliminating workers’ rights that had been won over many years of struggle. No more price controls. All in all, total freedom of movement for capital, goods and services. (To convince us this is good for us, they say “an unregulated market is the best way to increase economic growth, which will ultimately benefit everyone.” It’s like Reagan’s “supply-side” and “trickle-down” economics — but somehow the wealth didn’t trickle down very much.)
2. CUTTING PUBLIC EXPENDITURE FOR SOCIAL SERVICES like education and health care. REDUCING THE SAFETY-NET FOR THE POOR, and even maintenance of roads, bridges, water supply — again in the name of reducing government’s role. (Of course, they don’t oppose government subsidies and tax benefits for business.)
3. DEREGULATION. Reduce government regulation of everything that could diminsh profits, including protecting the environment and safety on the job.
4. PRIVATIZATION. Sell state-owned enterprises, goods and services to private investors. This includes banks, key industries, railroads, toll highways, electricity, schools, hospitals and even fresh water. (Although usually done in the name of greater efficiency, which is often needed, privatization has mainly had the effect of concentrating wealth even more in a few hands and making the public pay even more for its needs.)
5. ELIMINATING THE CONCEPT OF “THE PUBLIC GOOD” or “COMMUNITY” and replacing it with “individual responsibility.” (Pressuring the poorest people in a society to find solutions to their lack of health care, education and social security all by themselves — then blaming them, if they fail, as “lazy.”)
We could also talk about the role of the New Buccaneers–institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and the Inter- American Development Bank–and how they essentially raid “developing” nations, steal their resources (fairly, of course, in the free market), and mortgage the souls of these poor people with their “loans,” but that’s another level of abstraction and I would like to end this with the smallest, most basic unit of measurement which the comparison of these two scales provides.
Unfortunately, we’re left with a rather magical word: alchemy.
Through the process of turning every human activity and every resource of the Earth into a transaction, we’ve turned incalculable riches into clearly and severely devalued “wealth”. “Wealth” that no longer belongs to the person or thing from which it was (fairly!) taken by this magical process.
This is the same process whereby “freedom” becomes (wage) slavery, “truth” becomes whatever we’re told, and “peace” becomes a perpetual (and profitable!) war to keep us “free”.
Two further resources worth pondering in this most important question:
Portland Indy Media’s treatment of Justice versus Neoliberalism and Globalization by Karl Müller: (Justice is the weapon of the weaker, not the right of the stronger…)