A good part of the reason I started blogging was because I went to a history conference at a UT branch up between Dallas and Fort Worth and found that, contrary to belief, many well known academic historians have found community history projects to be invaluable because of their focus and details. Photos rated high. Photos with details rate high. Interviews with participants in events rated high. Interviews with older people rated high if you cover their experience and perspective.
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“Protest works. Just look at the proof”


The last place you will hear about the new American labor movement is in big American outlets.

Via lambert, via susie. See them, their blogrolls, Twitter hash tag #1u and just about any other outlet where citizens can get the word out.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW)

The CIW is a community-based organization of mainly Latino, Mayan Indian and Haitian immigrants working in low-wage jobs throughout the state of Florida. Via.


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The NSA and Utah: Is any win a good one?

Late last year a group called the Tenth Amendment Center proposed model legislation designed to give states new methods to oppose the National Security Agency (NSA). It included a proposal to cut off the water supply at the NSA’s Utah data center, and at the time I wrote about both the encouraging and troubling aspects of it. The short version is this: It’s nice to see groups looking for innovative ways to undercut the surveillance state, but seeing them come from groups that also believe in, say, nullification is unsettling.

An issue like government spying doesn’t cut along traditional conservative/liberal lines, though. It’s more of an insiders versus outsiders issue. In Washington both parties seem comfortable with the status quo, or at least not sufficiently disturbed by it to challenge it. Somehow even those who like to make the right noises about it, like Rand Paul, end up finding ways to oppose even the mildest reforms. Proposals to change intelligence agencies always come up short of getting enough support to take action.

Based on that history, it’s an exercise in futility to look to the capitol for reform - which means looking for unconventional coalitions elsewhere. The problem in this case is that an outsider coalition is not equal. Civil libertarians on the left are typically characterized in the media as extremists, those on the right as patriots. Cliven Bundy brandishes weapons at federal agents and is defending the Constitution; protesters in Ferguson press their case for civil rights and are regarded as radicals.

That dynamic is currently at play in Utah: the model legislation is now a bill from Republican lawmakers. The Washington Post gave a respectful presentation of it, and quoted the sponsors warmly:

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Marc Roberts (R), would prohibit any municipality from providing “material support or assistance in any form to any federal data collection and surveillance agency.”

[snip]

Roberts on Wednesday said the NSA came to Utah pledging to act according to the Constitution. “We all know and are aware that has been violated,” he told the committee, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.

And here are some stirring quotes from the Tribune article:

“I just don’t want to subsidize what they’re doing on the back of our citizens,” said Rep. Roger Barrus, R-Centerville.

[snip]

Joe Levi, the vice chair of the Davis County Republican Party and a Web administrator and senior editor of the website pocketnow.com, said jokes about how the NSA has already read the bill point to the problem with the spy agency.

“This is not a bill just about a data center,” Levi said. “This is a bill about civil rights.”

Neither article goes into the questionable provenance of the bill. It’s just taken at face value that these lawmakers arrived at their opinions independently and that their concern for the Constitution is all that informs them. Tracing it back to the Tenth Amendment Center (to say nothing of the unsavory history of nullification) would seem to be an important bit of context. But nope: they say civil rights and that’s good enough.

This puts civil libertarians on the left in a jam. On its face the bill is great. It’s a creative way to push back against an aggrandized and unaccountable intelligence apparatus. The NSA does what it wants when it wants and never sees any adverse consequences. Seeing anyone, anywhere successfully opposing it would be really encouraging. And maybe only the far right has the good will from political and media elites to try something like that. Maybe there’s an “only Nixon could go to China” quality to it.

It’s damned unnerving, though, to think through where a successful effort along these lines could end up. This is purely a product of the right. It’s not like the ACLU is being invited to offer support of it, or to lobby Democrats for its passage. If this is what ends up being the way forward, the left will be at best junior partners to these efforts, at worst cheerleaders. Meanwhile, the Tenth Amendment Center gains prestige and begins to emerge as an ALEC of nullification, offering draft legislation to legislators for new and exciting adventures in states’ rights.

As a liberal, I consider all of that and think: Here’s to Roberts and company’s success. But not too much of it.

The politics of #shirtstorm: Don't wear it or get over it?

The big news from the European Space Agency (ESA) over the last day or two hasn’t been of the Philae lander (current prognosis: dicey) but of ESA scientist Matt Taylor’s choice of shirt on the landing day. Wearing a rockabilly “girls and guns” print designed by his friend Elly Prizeman, an uproar ensued and Taylor quickly apologized.

Among the complaints were that the shirt contributes to a science culture that is hostile to women and discourages them from pursuing careers in STEM fields, that it displayed pornographic poses and that it was inappropriate work attire. As to the last point: in most cases, yes. I imagine most of us could never get away with wearing a Hawaiian shirt to work outside of some dress-themed day. Some workplaces are really relaxed about that though, and walking around in flip flops is perfectly fine. The ESA is apparently one of those places.

As to why he chose to wear that particular shirt on that day of all days - when he had to know he’d be getting interviewed for a large audience - it seems he was doing it as a shout out to his friend. That’s how Prizeman took it: “I never expected him to wear my gift to him for such a big event and was surprised and deeply moved that he did.” He may not have considered how it would have been taken by the audience that didn’t have that context (which consisted of basically everyone but Prizeman). He seems to devote most of his brain activity to science, so that possibility might never have even occurred to him.

In addition, here’s something that US audiences missed:

There’s another issue I want to address, which I think resonates more in the UK than it does to American audiences. Because there is a class aspect to this too. Americans looking and listening to Matt Taylor hear a white dude with a British accent. Brits hear someone who’s from a social background that doesn’t normally get to speak for British science.

There may also be a certain prickliness in the UK about a storm of criticism from the US towards a British scientist - a sense of hey, leave our people alone. (And something else we’re all still figuring out in the social media age is how to treat someone plucked from obscurity who suddenly becomes an object of intense interest. The position seems to be freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from being criticized - when one agrees with the criticism. When one disagrees, it’s a bullying and harassing mob.)

The charge that the shirt created a hostile work environment is the most interesting one to me, though. Whether or not a picture creates a hostile environment seems incredibly subjective. Some people can walk right by something like Taylor’s shirt and not find it the least upsetting. Plenty of women have spoken out to that effect already (here and here for two examples), while others are greatly bothered by it. Dr Space Junk put her discomfort with it in the context of a larger sexism in society:

The underlying view of the world doesn’t change until individual people start to act based on a different view. The aggregation of a thousand personal everyday choices, like what shirt you wear on the television, add up to either support or subvert the status quo.

But the idea that being uncomfortable with something is a reason to restrict it has some pretty troubling applications. Lots of people are uncomfortable seeing two guys holding hands as they walk down the street. I suspect most liberals would respond: This is the world as it exists now, get over your discomfort. If you say there’s a world of difference between opposing antigay sentiment and propping up a patriarchal status quo, it then turns into a political position. Those who don’t share that view on patriarchy (at least in this instance) can then claim hypocrisy. You say get over it for this, but not that.

I’ve seen a number of people whose opinions I’ve come to respect make the hostile work environment claim on this issue, so I’m not dismissive of it. But I still tend to side more with the position that says if you don’t like it (and it isn’t harming you), look past it.

I’m very much interested in feedback on this and will do my best to respond, though it might take a few hours.

Political realignment and the environmental movement 

The conventional wisdom about Democrats’ and Republicans’ racial politics over the last century or so seems to go something like this: Lingering hostility towards Republicans over the Civil War created a “solid South” for the Democrats. The GOP’s more business-friendly stance also sent working class people to the Democrats, creating an uneasy and unstable coalition comprised in part of minorities and unreconstructed racists. The fractures were visible even in signature achievements like Social Security,* and the coalition split apart for good over civil rights legislation in the 60s. Helped along by the Southern Strategy, conservative whites flocked to the Republican party starting in the 70s, and the two parties sorted into bases that had fewer ideological contradictions.

It’s tempting to put other issues in that narrative, maybe because it’s fun to contemplate the drama of major parties splitting apart and re-sorting in response to seismic shifts. It’s more fun than contemplating a major party adapting to new circumstances and including new partners incrementally, anyway.

That bias acknowledged, it seems at least possible that climate change and environmental issues might be in the process of creating an unsustainable coalition for the Democrats. While there’s long been a kind of low-grade disgruntlement with certain Democrats in areas where the extraction industry looms large - those who tread lightly around coal interests in Ohio or West Virginia, oil drilling in Louisiana, etc. - the growing awareness of human-influenced climate change and the cost/benefit analysis of unconventional extraction is creating sharp new divisions.

Since I’ve been paying particular attention to fracking in my neck of the woods, I know how communities are having to accommodate a process that brings little benefit to most citizens. On an issue like, say, water supplies, blandly comparing the amount used to the total amount in a state or region is deceptive. The real impact is felt at the community level, and the relative dearth of political leadership on that creates a vacuum.

In its absence, ad hoc coalitions have started to form (“It’s as if bed and breakfasts, birdwatchers, bicyclists, beef producers, and Bambi killers united against big oil”), traditional environmental groups have come under increased scrutiny, and representatives who try to play both sides are being called out. With the oil and gas industry increasingly willing to do whatever it takes to win, politicians are less and less able to be on the fence. Either declare which side you are on or be presumed opposition.

Earlier this year Chris Hayes made the case for a connection between slavery and fossil fuels. He looked more at economic parallels, but the impact on the political landscape could be just as huge. The comparison isn’t perfect, of course: there isn’t a sizable Democratic constituency primed to bolt to the Republicans over the issue. The tension here has more to do with politicians wanting to remain cordial with moneyed interests. Still, it’s an issue that will create increasing dissonance between higher ups and the base, which creates room for new leaders. That may come from unapproved challengers within the party, or it may develop organically outside it. But either way, it looks like something that will only get more, not less, urgent - and that might cause some fundamental realignments.


* I thought this attempt to argue otherwise was interesting:

The fact that many authors have mistaken the evidence in Witte as showing something it manifestly does not is especially surprising because Witte discussed the Title II coverage exclusions in his book, in the section “Exemption of Agriculture and Domestic Service.” Here is Witte’s (1962) explanation of how the coverage decision came about:
The staff of the Committee on Economic Security recommended that the old age insurance taxes and benefits be limited to industrial workers, excluding persons engaged in agriculture and domestic service. The Committee on Economic Security struck out this limitation and recommended that the old age insurance system be made applicable to all employed persons. This change was made largely at the insistence of Mr. Hopkins, but was favored also by Secretary Perkins.

Subordinate officials in the Treasury, particularly those in charge of internal revenue collections, objected to such inclusive coverage on the score that it would prove administratively impossible to collect payroll taxes from agricultural workers and domestic servants. They persuaded Secretary Morgenthau that the bill must be amended to exclude these groups of workers, to make it administratively feasible. Secretary Morgenthau presented this view in his testimony before the Ways and Means Committee … In the executive sessions of the Ways and Means Committee, the recommendations of Secretary Morgenthau were adopted, practically without dissent. (152–154)
So the historical evidence of record tells a very different story than that associated with a racial motivation behind the Title II coverage exclusions.
It’s possible that the estimate of what was impossible or administratively feasible might not have been purely technocratic, though. The perception of on whose behalf such efforts would need to be undertaken might have influenced the evaluation as well.

Gary Webb and the 2014 Sandinistas

The new movie “Kill the Messenger,” about journalist Gary Webb’s investigation into the connection between Contra drug running and the CIA in the 80s, is not exactly water cooler material at the moment. As of this writing Box Office Mojo has its widest release as 427 theaters (compare to 3,173 for the current box office champ), and it doesn’t seem to have much of a marketing push behind it (your mileage may vary). But what it lacks in mainstream buzz it’s making up for in political controversy. Washington Post assistant managing editor Jeff Leen published a piece last Friday decrying Webb’s “canonization” on film, and in doing so invited a new round of scrutiny of the Contra/CIA connection.

The best place to start reviewing the story is the 1989 report by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee titled Drugs, Law Enforcement And Foreign Policy (I’ve scanned it with optical character recognition here if you’d like to copy and paste as well as read). It covers a lot of territory, but the sections on Nicaragua are especially interesting when considering Webb’s reporting seven years later.

What did the Committee have to say? First, on page 6 (page 16 of the PDF - add ten pages to the PDF to get to the corresponding Committee pagination) it acknowledges one of the difficulties with investigating a criminal enterprise: “A number of witnesses and prospective witnesses were convicted felons, having been imprisoned for narcotics-related offenses. The Subcommittee made use of these witnesses in Accordance with the practice of Federal and State prosecutors, who routinely rely on convicts as witnesses in criminal trials because they are the ones with the most intimate knowledge of the criminal activity.” When wading into a cesspool of corruption it is often difficult to figure out which scumbag to believe. Relying on things like statements against interest can help sort things out, but it’s obviously going to be an inexact science.

That acknowledged, here’s what they found. The Contras were involved in drug running and US agencies knew it (p. 36):

While the contra/drug question was not the primary focus of the investigation, the Subcommittee uncovered considerable evidence relating to the Contra network which substantiated many of the initial allegations laid out before the Committee in the Spring of 1986. On the basis of this evidence, it is clear that individuals who provided support for the Contras were involved in drug trafficking, the supply network of the Contras was used by drug trafficking organizations, and elements of the Contras themselves knowingly received financial and material assistance from drug traffickers. In each case, one or another agency of the U.S. government had information regarding the involvement either while it was occurring, or immediately thereafter.

The entire gun/drug scene was mercenary (pp. 36-7):

The Subcommittee found that the links that were forged between the Contras and the drug traffickers were primarily pragmatic, rather than ideological. The drug traffickers, who had significant financial and material resources, needed the cover of legitimate activity for their criminal enterprises. A trafficker like George Morales hoped to have his drug indictment dropped in return for his financial and material support of the Contras. Others, in the words of Marcos Aguado, Eden Pastora’s air force chief:
…took advantage Of the anti-communist sentiment which existed in Central America … and they undoubtedly used it for drug trafficking.
While for some Contras, it was a matter of survival, for the traffickers it was just another business deal to promote and protect their own operations.

They apparently were graduates not of the School of the Americas but the Milo Minderbinder Institute for Profiteering (p. 40):

When the Sandinista insurgency succeeded in 1979, smuggling activity in northern Costa Rica did not stop. Surplus weapons originally stored in Costa Rica for use by the Sandinistas were sold on the black market in the region. Some of these weapons were shipped to the Salvadoran rebels from the same airstrips in the same planes, flown by the same pilots who had previously worked for the Sandinistas.

The drug lords were only too happy to benefit (p. 41):

Following their work on behalf of the Sandinistas and the Salvadoran rebels, the Colombian and Panamanian drug operatives were well positioned to exploit the infrastructure now serving and supplying the Contra Southern Front [a Contra base just across the border in Costa Rica]. This infrastructure was increasingly important to the drug traffickers, as this was the very period [1983] in which the cocaine trade to the U.S. from Latin America was growing exponentially.

The Contras were funded by drug money and that was fine with at least some of the individuals running the show (p. 41):

The logic of having drug money pay for the pressing needs of the Contras appealed to a number of people who became involved in the covert war. Indeed, senior U.S. policy makers were not immune to the idea that drug money was a perfect solution to the Contra’s funding problems.

As DEA officials testified last July before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Lt. Col. Oliver North suggested to the DEA in June 1985 that $1.5 million in drug money carried aboard a plane piloted by DEA informant Barry Seal and generated in a sting of the Medellin Cartel and Sandinista officials, be provided to the Contras. While the suggestion was rejected by the DEA, the fact that it was made highlights the potential appeal of drug profits for persons engaged in covert activity.

[Werner] Lotz [a Costa Rican pilot and convicted drug smuggler] said that Contra operations on the Southern Front were in fact funded by drug operations. He testified that weapons for the Contras came from Panama on small planes carrying mixed loads which included drugs. The pilots unloaded the weapons, refueled, and headed north toward the U.S. with drugs. The pilots included Americans, Panamanians, and Colombians, and occasionally, uniformed members of the Panamanian Defense Forces.

We have the names of some of those running drugs to the US (p. 43):

Pilots who made combined Contra weapons/drug flights through the Southern Front included:

— Gerardo Duran, a Costa Rican pilot in the airplane parts supply business. Duran flew for a variety of Contra organizations on the Southern Front, including those affiliated with Alfonso Robelo, Fernando “El Negro” Chamorro, and Eden Pastora, before U.S. officials insisted that the Contras sever their ties from Duran because of his involvement with drugs. Duran was convicted of narcotics trafficking in Costa Rica in 1987 and jailed.

— Gary Wayne Betzner, drug pilot who worked for convicted smuggler George Morales. Betzner testified that twice in 1984 he flew weapons for the Contras from the U.S. to northern Costa Rica and returned to the United States with loads of cocaine. Betzner is presently serving a lengthy prison term for drug smuggling.

— Jose “Chepon” Robelo, the head of UDN-FARN air force on the Southern front. Robelo turned to narcotics trafficking and reselling goods provided to the Contras by the U.S.

And we know at least one city the drugs were being flown to (p. 46):

In September, 1984, Miami police officials advised the FBI of information they had received that Ocean Hunter [a money laundering operation fronting as a seafood company] was funding contra activities through “narcotics transactions,” and nothing that Luis Rodriguez was its president. This information confirmed previous accounts the FBI had received concerning the involvement of Ocean Hunter and its officers in Contra supply operations involving the Cuban American community.

To recap: Various undifferentiated groups of psychopaths were fighting endless internecine wars against each other and wreaking havoc on the civilian populations that had the misfortune to be nearby. The engine for these conflicts was a professional class of amoral drug kingpins and bagmen who set up a drug pipeline to America. And the US, apparently in search of adventure, decided to pick a side. In other words, an appalling scandal.

The report gives the most generous possible interpretation for this by introducing the “blind eye” narrative (p. 44):

At best, these incidents represent negligence on the part of U.S. government officials responsible for providing support to the Contras. At worst it was a matter of turning a blind eye, to the, activities of companies who use legitimate activities as a cover for their narcotics trafficking.

But there are still some open questions (p. 42):

The State Department selected four companies owned and operated by narcotics traffickers to supply humanitarian assistance to the Contras…In each case, prior to the time that the State Department entered into contracts with the company, federal law enforcement had received information that the individuals controlling these companies were involved in narcotics…A number of questions arise as a result of the selection of these four companies by the State Department for the provision of humanitarian assistance to the contras, to which the Subcommittee has been unable to obtain clear answers:

— Who selected these firms to provide services to the Contras, paid for with public funds, and what criteria were used for selecting them?

— Were any U.S. officials in the CIA, NSC, or State Department aware of the narcotics allegations associated with any of these companies? If so, why were these firms permitted to receive public funds on behalf of the Contras?

— Why were Contra suppliers not checked against federal law enforcement records that would have shown them to be either under active investigation as drug traffickers, or in the case of DIASCA, actually under indictment?

The concern highlights the degree to which the infrastructure used by the Contras and that used by drug traffickers was potentially interchangeable, even in a situation in which the U.S. government had itself established and maintained the airstrip involved.

The whole operation crippled attempts to come to grips with the drug problem (p. 123):

The most graphic example of this Conflict between law enforcement and foreign policy priorities is that of Richard Gregorie, who for eight years led the war on drugs in the U.S. Attorney’s office in Miami. He had achieved a reputation as one of the nation’s most effective and toughest federal narcotics prosecutors.

Yet, Gregorie, in frustration, resigned his position in January of this year due to increasing opposition he was meeting from the State Department to his investigations and indictments of foreign officials.

In an interview with NBC, aired on February 22, 1989, Gregorie said the opposition from the State Department made it almost impossible to pursue top cocaine bosses. He stated, in that interview: “I am finding the higher we go, the further I investigate matters involving Panama, high level corruption in Colombia, in Honduras, in the Bahamas, they are concerned that we are going to cause a problem in foreign policy areas and that that is more important than stopping the dope problem.”

Lastly, the drug runners were remarkably effective at evading law enforcement - but then their luck began running out (p. 53):

Thomas Castillo, the former CIA station chief in Costa Rica, who was indicted in connection with the Iran/Contra affair, testified before the Iran/Contra Committees that when the CIA became aware of narcotics trafficking by Pastorals supporters and lieutenants, those individuals’ activities were reported to law enforcement officials. However, Morales continued to work with the Contras until January 1986. He was indicted for a second time in the Southern District of Florida for a January 1986 cocaine flight to Bahamas and was arrested on June 12, 1986.

In October 1986 Congress approved $100 million in funds for the Contras. Is it too much to think that the plug got pulled on such an unsavory clandestine operation in anticipation of a windfall of taxpayer money? And that there may have been some kind of extraordinary forbearance shown to the drug runners when they had no public funding? Sure, that would mean something more than studied ignorance was going on - which would conflict with the preferred version of events. But the Committee report establishes a solid foundation for anyone looking to fill in the gaps. I don’t know how anyone can read that report and conclude, as Leen does, that it’s the final word on the matter. It’s just the opposite: an invitation to further investigation.

Given the vast scope of the program, its duration, and the abundance of details provided by the report, it strains credulity to think that the entire time US operatives were just standing on the sideline watching. So when, years later, Webb accepted the invitation, the resulting series shouldn’t have been seen as a fundamental change of narrative. Rather, it was a clarification of the blind eye/active encouragement questions left open by the Committee report. Why was it so explosive then? Robert Parry has a thought:

Webb’s series wasn’t just a story about drug traffickers in Central America and their protectors in Washington. It was about the on-the-ground consequences, inside the United States, of that drug trafficking, how the lives of Americans were blighted and destroyed as the collateral damage of a U.S. foreign policy initiative.

In other words, there were real-life American victims, and they were concentrated in African-American communities. That meant the ever-sensitive issue of race had been injected into the controversy. Anger from black communities spread quickly to the Congressional Black Caucus, which started demanding answers.

It’s one thing to write about trafficking and smuggling. It’s quite another to identify the destination of that traffic and into whose hands the smuggled goods ended. Webb’s series has been preserved by Narco News, and you can read part one, part two and part three for yourself. Webb’s pieces sound a number of themes from the Committee report, such as the frustration of drug investigations:

Agents from four organizations — the DEA, U.S. Customs, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the California Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement — have complained that investigations were hampered by the CIA or unnamed “national security” interests.

And the withdrawal of support for the program:

According to a December 1986 FBI Teletype, [Bradley] Brunon [defense attorney for Contra leader and drug dealer Oscar Danilo Blandon Reyes] told the officers that the “CIA winked at this sort of thing. … (Brunon) indicated that now that U.S. Congress had voted funds for the Nicaraguan Contra movement, U.S. government now appears to be turning against organizations like this.”…Blandon has also implied that his cocaine sales were, for a time, CIA-approved. He told a San Francisco federal grand jury in 1994 that once the FDN began receiving American taxpayer dollars, the CIA no longer needed his kind of help.

That last quote actually supports the “blind eye” theory and just calls it a wink instead. But here’s the rub: you can’t reconcile a wink with the change in the smugglers’ fortunes post-Congressional funding. If some person or agency was clearing the field for those activities - and again, the Committee report suggests as much, it’s not new - then the blind eye narrative is blown out of the water.

We aren’t talking blind eye anymore, but neither are we talking about CIA agents selling drugs in south central Los Angeles. So it’s ludicrous for Leen to write Webb claimed “the Central Intelligence Agency was responsible for the crack cocaine epidemic in America.” Why resort to such hyperbolic falsehood? Maybe because knocking out the support from under the blind eye version of events would be incredibly damaging to the CIA’s reputation and credibility (and Leen seems particularly sympathetic to the agency). So instead of trying to re-establish blind eye, Leen makes an outlandish characterization of Webb’s reporting. Readers who are not familiar with it (and Leen unhelpfully does not provide links) will be inclined to think Webb a crank and his reporting discredited.

What’s even more extraordinary is that Leen was “an investigative reporter covering the drug trade for the Miami Herald” during the time in question. While he was on that beat the United States Senate released a report disclosing, among other things, that a money laundering operation in Miami was funding the Contras through drug sales. Yet he writes:

Beginning in 1985, journalists started pursuing tips about the CIA’s role in the drug trade. Was the agency allowing cocaine to flow into the United States as a means to fund its secret war supporting the contra rebels in Nicaragua? Many journalists, including me, chased that story from different angles, but the extraordinary proof was always lacking.

Weren’t the activities of Ocean Hunter, helpfully supplied by the Senate - no chasing required! - worthy of a deep dive? It’s just astounding that the abundance of leads in the Committee report was taken not as the jumping off point for a whole new round of investigations but the final word on the CIA’s blamelessness. Parry has an apt description (via Charles Pierce) of Leen’s brand of investigative journalism:

journalists need “extraordinary proof” if a story puts the U.S. government or an “ally” in a negative light but pretty much anything goes when criticizing an “enemy.”

If, for instance, the Post wanted to accuse the Syrian government of killing civilians with Sarin gas or blame Russian-backed rebels for the shoot-down of a civilian airliner over Ukraine, any scraps of proof – no matter how dubious – would be good enough (as was the actual case in 2013 and 2014, respectively).

However, if new evidence undercut those suspicions and shifted the blame to people on “the U.S. side” – say, the Syrian rebels and the Ukrainian government – then the standards of proof suddenly skyrocket beyond reach.

“Extraordinary proof” is not an ironclad principle adhered to though the heavens may fall, but a tactic that is first evaluated against political exigency.


In the comments to Leen’s piece (the Post doesn’t permalink comments, so either wade through them yourself or trust me on this one) linerider writes:
As stated before Webb all but claimed the CIA created the crack epidemic. Go back and read the articles. Not simply that they ignored their sources in the business; not that drugs weren’t a national security issue to them, but that real, honest-to-god spooks ran drugs. That’s the inference. They didn’t and running with that lead discredited everything else he wrote.

Was the CIA wrong in turning a blind eye to the traffickers? As much so as they are in turning a blind eye to anyone who provides a major need in the fulfillment of our national goals. Would they ignore drug trafficking being done by, say the Kurds, if the Kurds were using the money to fight ISIS? Would the nation consider that acceptable? And would we claim that the CIA was all but running the drugs into the United States by associating with Kurds and ignoring that backdoor funding or would we recognize the nuance - a nuance rarely found in the age of 7 day/24 hour internet reporting?

I have no idea who that individual is, but the comment is a great example of Washington’s perpetual conflict mentality, beginning with the smearing of a credible report (“Webb all but claimed the CIA created the crack epidemic…That’s the inference.”) Go back and read the articles indeed.

The second paragraph is the really interesting one, though. How would we think about its contemporary analogue? Would we be OK with the Kurds running heroin to the US (ideally in a newly engineered form that made it cheaper, more potent, and suitable for transport to America’s urban areas, I suppose)? God knows the war-firsters have been hyping the nonexistent threat from ISIS and would like nothing more than to drop another round of freedom bombs. Launching a new war certainly casts a new light on a little smuggling. So would we recognize the, ahem, nuance? Personally, I’d say absolutely fucking not, and the suggestion that this is some kind of grey area is indicative of a terribly skewed moral compass. But as a window into a certain kind of bellicose mindset I find it fascinating.

More importantly, consider this. In Webb’s first article he describes the Contra war as “barely a memory today.” It turns out the Sandinistas weren’t so important after all. Looking back, it seems hard to believe the US went to such lengths to oppose them. That’s why linerider’s analogy is so valuable. ISIS poses the same threat to us now that the Sandinistas did in the 80s. If we resist the urge to turn them into heroes and martyrs, they will burn out or fade away. Yet now, as then, a wildly exaggerated threat is being hyped. Now, as then, we don’t know much about who we are being asked to support. Now, as then, we don’t really know what’s happening on the ground. You don’t need to be Nostradamus to see how this will all look in twenty or thirty years. But by then we will be on to our next wild ride, and the next Gary Webb - should we be fortunate enough to have one - will be long fallen from respectability.


NOTES

  1. A couple noteworthy comments to the Washington Post article. I found the Committee report courtesy of Patrick J. Kiger:
    Forget about whether or not Webb overreached. Read the Kerry committee report http://www2.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB113/north06.pdf In it, you have operatives in a CIA and NSC-run operation who are simultaneously involved in drug trafficking, including (on page 42) a pilot who flew guns to the Contras and then returned to the US with drugs. This is just a sample of the sort of stuff than went on during the Reagan administration, some of which makes the Right’s worst allegations against President Obama look trivial.
    Geri72 wrote the following about the film’s distribution:
    Is it also worth noting that the distributors of this film, Focus, have absolutely killed it. They have done the barest minimum of marketing and instead of slowly increasing the number of screens to allow for word of mouth, they dumped it in a few hundred, which is both too many and not enough; too many to be costly to sustain without an audience primed and ready, too few to get the word out on social media. It is likely they will pull it completely within the next week or so.
  2. Leen makes much of how Webb’s editor “backed away” from (note: not retracted) the story. Among the items:
    Blandon testified he stopped sending cocaine profits to the Contras at the end of 1982, after being in operation for a year.

    The evidence also suggested that millions in profits were sent to the Contras from cocaine sales to Ross and others, Ceppos wrote…”We didn’t know for certain what the profits were, and I feel that we should have made it clear that our figures were estimates,” Ceppos wrote.
    The clarifications don’t change the thesis, though. The Contras were getting drug profits, but for not as long (in one case, anyway) as indicated. They were making lots of money from drug sales, but only estimates are available. It seems to me a journalist worth his salt would take these items as a reason to dig further into rather than bury the story.
  3. Beginning on page 124 of the Committee report is a section titled “THE CONSEQUENCES OF PRIVATIZING U.S. FOREIGN POLICY.” It’s worth looking at both for its historical value and how it foreshadowed subsequent developments in that area.
  4. Lest you think intelligence and executive branch agencies giving Congress the finger is a recent development, look at the following from the report.

    Pp. 38-9 (emphasis added):
    On May 6, 1986, a bipartisan group of Committee staff met with representatives of the Justice Department, FBI, DEA, CIA and State Department to discuss the allegations that Senator Kerry had received information of Neutrality Act Violations, gun running and drug trafficking in association with Contra organizations based on the Southern Front in Costa Rica.

    In the days leading up to the meeting, Justice Department spokesmen were stating publicly that “the FBI had conducted an inquiry into all of these charges and none of them have any substance. At that meeting, Justice Department officials privately contradicted the numerous public statements from the Department that these allegations had been investigated thoroughly and were determined to be without foundation. The Justice Department officials at the meeting said the public statements by Justice were “inaccurate.” The Justice officials confirmed there were ongoing Neutrality. Act investigations in connection with the allegations raised by Senator Kerry.

    At the same meeting, representatives of the CIA categorically denied that the Neutrality Act violations raised by the Committee staff had in fact taken place, citing classified documents which the CIA did not make available to the Committee. In fact, at the time, the FBI had already assembled substantial information confirming the Neutrality Act violations, including admissions by some of the persons involved indicating that crimes had taken place.
    P. 39:
    The Justice Department refused to provide any information in response to this request on the grounds that the information remained under active investigation, and that the Committee’s “rambling through open investigations gravely risks compromising those efforts.”
    P. 60:
    At the May 6, 1986 meeting with Committee staff, the CIA categorically denied that weapons had been shipped to the Contras from the United States on the flights involving Rene Corbo, noting that the material on which they were basing these assertions was classified, and suggested that the allegations that had been made to the contrary were the result of disinformation.

    In fact, as the FBI had previously learned from informants, Cuban American supporters of the Contras had shipped weapons from south Florida to Ilopango, and from there to John Hull’s airstrips in Costa Rica.
    These agencies have learned they can act with impunity towards Congress, which doesn’t inspire confidence in the end product of the upcoming torture report.

Tech is wonderful and the kids are fine

The “we are the first generation of parents to” lifestyle piece is a hardy perennial that probably shouldn’t even exist. There really is nothing new under the parenting sun; everything is just a variation on the anxieties parents have always faced. I suspect that pre-parenthood obliviousness, combined with the frighteningly intimate quality of those worries once they appear, cause a lot of parents to think there is something novel about it all.

Allison Slater Tate has the latest version: Now with Internet! Apparently those of us in Generation X had “low-tech childhoods” (the hell?) but now “we are among the first of the truly high-tech parents.” So we, unlike every previous generation of parents in human history, have to grapple with the implications of technology on our children. Because when I was a kid we were never browbeaten about how telephones were destroying our social skills, or how all we did was stare slack-jawed in front of screens for hours on end, or how pocket calculators were reducing us to button-punching ignoramuses. (Sumerian parent, circa 2500 BC: “Gilgamesh, put down that abacus and learn how to count!”)

I’m sympathetic to the concerns parents have about wanting kids who are socially adept and have acquired a taste for the subtler pleasures in life. I want that for mine as well. But agonizing over the corrupting influence of technology itself is silly. As Athenae wrote, what exactly about text messages makes teenagers not awkward and romance not sweet? Teenagers use the available technology to navigate the same waters we did, that our parents did, and on and on. They just have more tools available, and good for them. If anything, they’re doing a better job than us. A one sentence text message from my kid is roughly once sentence more than I saw fit to communicate most days with my parents when I was his age.

In pieces like Tate’s, young people do not just have access to technology, don’t just find it absorbing, but are consumed by it - sucked into a void that parents are helpless to pull them out of. First of all, sometimes it’s pretty nice to have a kid so engrossed in something that the outside world disappears. From personal experience: Three boys quietly playing handheld games in the back seat are three boys not screaming at and hitting each other. Keep that PS Vita charged up, Junior!

But beyond that, they gravitate to other things as they get older. Teenagers today, like always, 1) have an insatiable craving for that which is authentic (not manufactured, processed, targeted at them, hip, in style, whatever) and 2) pick up a lot from their parents through osmosis. On that second point, for example, one of my oldest son’s friends knows more about Lou Reed’s solo work than I do - because his dad is a huge fan and he heard Lou all the time growing up. Even without that, older things - that aren’t advertised to them but that they discover more or less on their own - have real cachet. I know a few teens more fluent in Pink Floyd than contemporary music.

Parents are not helpless observers, either. They can engage both by sharing their kids’ enthusiasms (Minecraft isn’t that hard to learn, for God’s sake) and sharing their own youthful enthusiasms. I hung on to the Great Brain books I loved as a child, and have had a lot of fun reading them to my own. Kids aren’t going to just know how cool low tech alternatives can be - more often than not they’ll need a proper introduction.

A little intuition can go a long way, too. When my oldest went crazy for Skyrim I figured he might enjoy Dungeons and Dragons. Since the only way to really learn D&D is to have someone who knows it show you the ropes, I had him invite some friends over, pulled out the old books and had them roll up some characters. Once they got the hang of it, they loved it - and began bringing friends along. (Full disclosure: I did all of this primarily because I am an arrested adolescent and still geek out over D&D as much now as I did when I was fourteen.) We have sessions every week that last several hours. Sure they check their phones, but for the most part they are interacting with each other and having a good time engaging in some improvisational storytelling.

In fact, it’s possible that today’s young people are more receptive than ever to in-person experiences. In a time of declining driver rates and pay to play extracurriculars, teenagers don’t have the occasion or ability to congregate like they used to. It’s been my observation that they leap at such opportunities when they present themselves, and see social media as a poor substitute. Instead of fretting over how attached they seem to be to tech, why not put an alternative in front of them? If they don’t dig it, try something else. If nothing seems to click, relax - kids are naturally restless. Sooner or later they’ll wander off whatever path has been laid out before them and find something they can get fired up about. And then you’ll really start to worry.