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Noam Chomsky: An interesting interview

Profile: Noam Chomsky
Noam Chomsky interviewed by Nick Mutch
Cherwell, November 15, 2014

There is a beautiful, tragicomic moment in Norman Mailer’s famous book on the march on the Pentagon, Armies of the Night, where he writes of being beaten and bundled into the back of a police wagon before being carted off to a cell.

Thrown in with him is a uniformed member of the American Nazi party, and a dour, slight scholar with a burning fight in his eyes.

Mailer says the man reminds him a bit of Woody Allen. It turns out to be Noam Chomsky.

The anecdote above has more to it than just its obvious gallows humour, as it shows Noam Chomsky as the ultimate example of what the activist academic should be. From the very start of the Vietnam War, through long forgotten American wars of aggression in Indochina, Latin America, Africa and South East Asia, to the more vividly remembered conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, he has been the leading light of intellectual opposition.

He is also the model scholarly academic, considered the most influential figure in the field of linguistics since the discipline was founded.

Chomsky has a reputation for extreme generosity — offering his time to anyone and everyone who wishes to consult him for the purpose of political debate or scholarly research.

He personally replies to each and every one of the hundreds of emails he receives. He is the utter antithesis of the detached professor in an ivory tower — despite being voted the most influential public intellectual in the world.

We talked initially about the lingering shadow of American power and the hope that was once vested in President Barack Obama to change the direction of the United States.

Why, I ask, did he disappoint his supporters on the Left? And why did political anger against the US government manifest itself mainly as right wing populism, such as in the tea party movement?

Its true Obama is regarded as a disappointment on the Left, but there’s really no reason for that. He’s a master of illusion and many people fell for the illusion — even Europe, which is typically much more sceptical about American leaders. But there was never any basis for it. I don’t say that in retrospect, I was writing about that before his first election. Vote for him maybe, but without any illusions. He’s sort of a centrist liberal, and could easily be a moderate Republican.

He has no particular principles that I can identify. In fact, the advertising industry enthusiastically gave the best marketing campaign of the year to Obama, the year he was first elected. The business press, like the Financial Times reported to executives that they were euphoric at his being elected: they knew he wouldn’t try and rock the system. So, we really have no reason to be surprised.”

He tells me that he did not vote himself. “If I was in a swing state I would have voted against Romney and Ryan, not because I was for Obama, but because they are very dangerous people, and I would vote to keep them out.

The United States doesn’t have anything close to a functioning democratic system. Democracy is supposed to be a system where public opinion strongly influences public policy; that’s the general idea.

In America, we have a very heavily polled society, so we know a lot about what people want. The eminent Princeton authority on elections in the United States concluded that the bottom 70% of the population in terms of low income has no influence on policy whatsoever.

The very rich get everything they want, and the remainder get a small bit of leeway on deciding social issues. That’s not a democratic system that I can recognize.”

Chomsky goes on to invoke Gore Vidal’s comment that American politics has one party: the property party, with two right wings.

In an interesting example he says the last progressive liberal president was Richard Nixon. “Nixon was actually the last real liberal president of the United Status, and far more so than the incumbent. The US establishment is now dedicated to dismantling his legacy: the Environmental Protection Agency, the protection for workers’ rights, the properly graded earned income tax, which essentially gives a subsidy to working people who could barely afford to pay their taxes. This was the peak of the 1960’s activism. They’ve been trying to repeal those ‘mistakes’ ever since.”

We move on to the role of the United States’ power over the rest of the world, particularly the precarious position it holds in the Middle East. Should the West ever intervene in the Arab spring to ensure the spread of democracy?

“The West is strongly opposed to the Arab Spring — based on the terminology of course. The US and their allies don’t want to see democracy develop in the Arab world.

It’s very obvious why there’s not much public opinion undertaken by leading Western polling agencies in these countries.

Take Egypt, in many ways the most important country. A huge majority of the Egyptian population regards Israel as its greatest threat, followed closely by the United States. And yet, the West is trying to press the idea that Iran is the greatest threat in the region.

They [people in the Middle East] don’t particularly like the Iranian regime, but they don’t see it as much of a threat. Sometimes they even believe the region would like Iran to have nuclear weapons to counteract the threat of the US and Israel.

“These are not the opinions that the US and Great Britain want to see put into policy. Whenever you see corporate elites or US politicians citing Arab countries fear of Iran, you’re really seeing them cite the opinions of the dictators, like Mubarak or the Saudi royal family.

But of course they’re going to be opposed to democracy; they’re going to try to stop and limit the spread as much as possible. The US is often considered opposed to radical Islam, which is why they say they stand up to Iran, but the most extreme radical Islamic state in this part of the world is Saudi Arabia, the United States greatest ally in the region.

“There is a long history of Britain and the US supporting radical Islam as a barrier to secular nationalism. Secular nationalism is a real concern for these powers, because it threatens to use the resources of the country to benefit its own populations, rather than Western investors and so on.

“They don’t like radical Islam, if it negatively affects the interests of the United States, but they also strongly oppose the Catholic Church when it negatively affects their interests.

There was a war with the Catholic Church and its associated liberation theology in Latin America in the 1970’s and 1980’s — conveniently glossed over in most accounts of the period.”

We finished by discussing the case of the most controversial activist in the world, Julian Assange, currently languishing in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

“If there are charges against Julian Assange in Sweden he should face them. In fact he’s been entirely willing to when he’s in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, the Swedish prosecutors have been invited inside by the Ecuadorian government multiple times. But the sex issues are not what this prosecution is about. The issue is that he acted the way a responsible citizen should. He tried to bring to the public information about what their governments are doing.

He compares Assange’s experience to his involvement in distributing the Pentagon Papers, the controversial files about US policy in Vietnam released in 1971. “We were trying to do exactly the same thing.

There are cases where there is genuinely a need for secrecy, but they have to be treated with the utmost scepticism. If you’ve ever studied declassified documents, you find almost nothing that needs to be concealed for reasons of national security. Mostly the classification system is only a defence of those in power against their own populations. He [Assange] was helping release to the population.”

He ends with the perfect note of irony when I ask him if he has any closing comments. “I have a lot of comments, but nothing ever closes.”

No Place to Hide? When investigative journalists are prosecuted for divulging secret government illegal actions

Machiavelli wrote in The Prince:

The character of the common people is mobile and easy to lead to an opinion. The real problem for the power-to-be is how to maintain this character, how to force the common people to believe when they cease to believe in the opinion of the powerful.

Nietzsche wrote in Beyond Good and Evil:

The key word for those keen minds of conscientious people working on secret projects is: How to Trespass morality.

Roland Barthes wrote:

Fascism is to pressure people to express the opinions of the rulers

From a 1975 statement of Senator Frank Church to the committees of the  intelligence agencies:

“The US government has perfected a tech capability that enables us to monitor the messages that go through the air…

That capability could at any time turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left…

Such is the capability to monitor everything, telephone conversations, telegram…it doesn’t matter.

There would be No Place to Hide”

This monitoring capability has extended to internet, social platforms, mobile phones, public and private video cameras, satellite imaging, instant location capturing features…

The US government strategy, backed by Congressmen, Senators and leading journalists… was to mute Glenn Greenwald bold and direct reporting on the widespread surveillance on everyone (collective data gathering). The strategy was to label Glenn as just another blogger and an activist. Why?

Journalists in the US and in many other States have formal and unwritten legal protection that are unavailable to any one else when they reveal secret intelligence pieces through their job of investigative reporting.

Thus, robbing Glenn from this status of journalist was to expose him to legal criminal harassment.

For example, the misleading claims that he is:

1. A co-conspirator working with sources to obtain document

2. Establishing a covert communication plan to speak without being detected with sources

3. Employing flattery and playing to the sources’ vanity and ego to persuade the source to leak secrets documents

are routine tactics within the job description and methods of investigative journalists, but would not cover bloggers and activists.

Leonard Downie Jr. former executive editor of the Wash. Post, wrote in the name of the Committee to protect Journalists:

“The Obama Administration war on leaks and other efforts to control information are the most aggressive since the Nixon Adm.  The 30 experienced Wash Journalists at a variety of news organizations interviewed for the report could not remember any precedent (on this scale)”

“The Obama Adm. had crossed a red line that no other administration has crossed before and blown right past” said Jane Mayer in the New republic. It is a huge impediment to reporting and beyond chilling. It’s more like freezing the whole process into a standstill”

Even the NYTimes reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin, who had fought all the way to the US Supreme Court in order to publish the Pentagon Papers, advocated the arrest of Glenn.

No one in the US dared confirm any “informal assurance” that Glenn would not be prosecuted if he lands in the USA.

The US government was ready to concoct a theory that Greenwald’s repeated meetings with Edward Snowden in Hong Kong and in Russia and publishing reports on a “freelance basis” with newspapers around the world do fall under the criminal law of “aided and abetted” Snowden in his leaks and helped a “fugitive” flee justice or that the reports constituted some type of espionage.

It is evident that the security state in the USA is more powerful than the highest elected officials and do boast a wide array of influential loyalists.

So what kinds of reforms are necessary to check this wave of collective meta-data collection surveillance on people and institutions?

1. Targeted surveillance backed with substantial evidence of real wrongdoing

2. This “Collect it all” approach and indiscriminate mass surveillance is constitutionally illegal.

3. Using metadata analysis technique has not produced or disclosed a single terrorist plot: This a terrible burden on the budget dedicated to hiring specialized data analysts who have no clue on how to handle their job.

4. The government must provide some evidence of probable cause of wrongdoing before listening to a person conversations. That’s the job of FISA court.

5. FISA court. must be reformed so that it is not used as a rubber stamp. Converting FISA court into a real judicial system would be a positive first step in the reform

6. This trend of co-opting entities by the national security state badly needs an oversight control system to tame its abuses.

7. Building a new Internet infrastructure so that all the communication traffics have no longer to transit through the US network. European tech companies are spewing alternative special platforms to Google and Facebook intended Not to provide data to the NSA

8. More encryption programs and browsing-anonymity tools are being designed for users working in sensitive jobs such as journalists, lawyers, civil rights advocate organizations…

9. Advancing government transparency reforms

Whistle-blowers have learned that speaking the truth does not necessarily destroy their life: The side of supporters has grown immensely and are promoting the human capacity to reason and make decisions outside the boundaries of government status quo.

Note: Glenn Greenwald published 4 books. Among them:

1. With Liberty and Justice for some

2. A Tragic Legacy

3. No place to hide

He published Edward Snowden secret stories in The Guardian before co-founding the investigative publication The Intercept


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