Separating fact from fake news

Danny Katch, author of Socialism…Seriously: A Brief Guide to Human Liberation, considers how the left can analyze the world in the Trumpian era of “alternative facts.”

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer

ALL GOVERNMENTS lie, as the independent journalist I.F. Stone once said. But not all governments lie as proudly as those led by Donald Trump.

This guy started his presidency issuing an easily disprovable falsehood about the size of the crowd at his inauguration, a typically Trumpish blend of silly and creepy, like a dictator declaring that from this day forward the sky is officially orange (or climate change is a hoax). He lies so often that a whole category of his lies are denials of previous lies.

Corporate-owned media outlets generally obey the unwritten rule that the spokespeople for government sources should be treated as credible–regardless of how many times they’ve been caught lying–but the new president’s obvious disdain for the truth pushed many of them to adopt a more Stone-like stance of skepticism.

But Trump only needed to lob some missiles and bombs in enemy lands to restore the press back to its natural state of blind trust in authority. The Pentagon announced that it dropped the “Mother of All Bombs” in eastern Afghanistan, and there was little mainstream questioning of the government’s claim that this monstrosity with a mile-wide blast radius managed to only kill bad guys.

Clearly the left has to take a different approach, and treat the word of the U.S. government as we would that of any individual with a similarly long history of murder and mendacity.

But if we don’t trust the government–and, by extension, many of the mainstream news reports that simply repeat government talking points–then how do we get our information?

The left doesn’t have the resources to replicate all of the bureaus and investigative reporting of media corporations. Progressive media like Democracy Now! and Truthout (or even your humble correspondents at SocialistWorker.org) can sometimes deliver important scoops, but radicals have no choice but to rely on larger outlets for much of our information.

The defining difference between the left and the corporate media is not that we have different facts–because we often don’t–but that we have different frameworks for interpreting and drawing conclusions from those facts. That’s important to keep in mind at a time when “alternative facts” are becoming a growing problem on the left as well as the right.

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OUR STARTING point at SocialistWorker.org is that, as mentioned, we don’t trust “our” government.

But we should be consistent like I.F. Stone and be suspicious of all governments–especially those like the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, which has tortured and murdered hundreds of thousands of people and lied about its crimes with a boldness that would make Sean Spicer bow down in admiration.

This is unfortunately not a universal method across the left. Like the closed circuit of right-wing websites passing the same fabrications back and forth about disease-spreading immigrants and “black-on-black crime,” there are a growing number of websites recycling dubious speculations about “false flag” operations in Syria designed to discredit the Assad government.

These conspiracy theories not only suck a few people down the “truther” rabbit hole, but they also create a deliberately muddled atmosphere on the left that can make new activists think they need to read detailed studies of the property of sarin gas just to have an opinion on something that couldn’t be more clear: the Assad government is monstrous.

SocialistWorker.org has drawn that conclusion not because the U.S. government says so, but because millions of Syrians have said so–including those who have been killed, jailed and exiled in the process.

That gets to the next element of our framework for evaluating facts and understanding the world. We may not trust governments, but we listen closely to ordinary people, particularly when they are organized in large-scale protest movements.

Protesters can lie, of course, and protest movements are subject to manipulation, whether by foreign agents or homegrown opportunists. But our starting assumption when hundreds of thousands or millions of people take to the streets is that they are not mere puppets of a foreign power.

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HERE’S THE thing about government lies: They’re usually not very effective–and in reality, they don’t need to be.

When the cops kill another unarmed African American and claim he was charging at all five of them with a pair of scissors, they don’t get away with it because we all believe them–certainly not those of us who live in the neighborhood. They get away with it because cops are allowed to murder unarmed Black people. The lie is just a formality.

Or take the lies that the Bush administration told about Iraq having “weapons of mass destruction,” which some now cite as “precedent” for the U.S. lying about Assad using chemical weapons.

There are two false assumptions that have developed in recent years about the big WMD lie.

The first is that most people were tricked by the lie into supporting the war. In fact, the U.S. population was pretty much split down the middle, and the protests against the Iraq invasion before it happened were some of the largest in U.S. history. Like killer cops, the Bush administration went to war with Iraq not because they were able to fool us, but because they had the power to disregard popular will.

The second myth is that the WMD lie was essential for the war. In fact, it wasn’t necessarily the belief in WMDs that led people to support the invasion, but the other way around. Just as people who want to drill for more oil find a way to not believe in climate change, people who wanted the invasion to happen convinced themselves that Saddam Hussein had his finger on the button of an arsenal of WMDs.

As for our side, while we certainly didn’t believe the Bush’s lies–especially when they were contradicted by the person charged with inspecting Iraq for WMDs–many of us wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that Iraq did indeed hide chemical or biological weapons. After all, the U.S. had considered Saddam Hussein an ally until he became an enemy.

Our opposition to the war wasn’t based on believing that Iraq didn’t have WMDs, but on the anti-imperialist understanding that the United States isn’t a force that would protect the world from those weapons.

Similarly today, opposing the U.S. waging war on the Syrian government doesn’t require us to believe the Assad regime didn’t carry out the recent poison gas attack (which it almost certainly did)–any more than protesting the Ferguson police murder of Mike Brown required us to know that Brown hadn’t first robbed cigarillos from a convenience store (which he almost certainly didn’t.)

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THE LEFT that needs to grow into a force that can challenge Donald Trump has to be one that doesn’t create its own alternative facts to fit into our alternative politics. On the contrary, we have to do our best to gather and interpret new information from all available sources in order to keep up our understanding of a constantly changing world.

This dynamism is another element of our political framework, and it’s admittedly more complicated than simply trusting what the leaders of protest movements say more than governments. Assessing the changes in inter-imperial rivalries and the competing political tendencies inside opposition movements is not an exact science, and it requires a willingness to debate and change one’s mind.

But there’s a basic outline for understanding the U.S. role in the Middle East that’s clear. For years after the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. goal was regime change to install puppet governments across the region. Those plans were laid to waste, first by the failed occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan and then by the 2011 Arab Spring rebellions, which turned “regime change” into a revolutionary demand that the U.S. government instinctively opposed.

That’s why the Obama administration was very cautious about backing rebels in Syria even as Assad turned the country into a killing field that sprouted both ISIS and a mass exodus of refugees to the surrounding region and some to Europe. And it’s why Trump came into office talking even more openly about working with and not against the Syrian regime.

Yes, the U.S. government has lied to go to war, and it will undoubtedly do so in the future. But we can assume that it isn’t lying about Assad’s sarin attack, not because Trump of all people is a trustworthy president, but because he didn’t want to go to war against Syria.

(Of course, reports like this New York Times article make it unclear if the Trump administration is even competent enough to know whether or not it’s lying.)

Fifteen years ago, the 9/11 conspiracy cult did damage, not good, to the antiwar cause, and more than a few decent leftists were sucked into the abyss of all-night Internet sleuthing and “you must be in on it, too” paranoia.

Their problem wasn’t that they were wrong that the U.S. government was probably hiding details about 9/11–like the involvement of Saudi Arabia. The problem was the illusion that if only they could uncover the “truth” and bring the conspiracy to light, we could get back to the normal decency of American capitalism and empire.

Today, it’s critical that the left exposes Trump’s lies, rather than counter them with our own. Otherwise, instead of winning millions of new people to our side, we’ll just add to the general cynicism that you can’t trust anything you read anywhere.

http://socialistworker.org/2017/04/20/separating-fact-from-fake-news

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What Does a Soviet Submarine Have to Do With U.S. Government Secrecy?

 

By Nathan Freed Wessler, Staff Attorney, ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project at 11:54am

 

It is the height of the Cold War. A nuclear-missile-equipped Soviet submarine sinks in the Pacific Ocean, in suspicious circumstances. The CIA commissions reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes to secretly build a massive ship capable of lifting the submarine off the ocean floor using a colossal extendable claw. The ship is built, christened the “Glomar Explorer,” and — disguised as a deep-sea mining vessel — sent on a top-secret recovery mission. Out on the high seas, the Glomar’s claw locks onto the sub and raises it toward the surface — until it breaks into pieces with the crew watching helplessly. The crew recovers only a portion of it, the entombed bodies of Russian seamen still inside.

 

Soon, intrepid journalists get wind of the operation and file Freedom of Information Act requests for more information. A CIA lawyer — operating under the cover name Walt Logan — thinks up a novel way to keep the mission secret without telling an all-out lie: refuse to confirm or deny whether records about the Glomar Explorer’s mission exist. One journalist sues over this confusing non-response, and a battle over government secrecy follows in court.

 

This is not the plot of a new Hollywood thriller. It is the true story of the origin of what is now known as the “Glomar response,” recently presented in a fascinating Radiolab podcast featuring the ACLU’s Jameel Jaffer. It is well worth a listen.

 

Why should we care? It’s not just because we all like a good tale of intrigue at sea; it’s because the CIA and other government agencies continue to use the Glomar response to facilitate excessive government secrecy when Americans seek records under the Freedom of Information Act. Building off that first episode of Cold War concealment four decades ago, in answer to requests by the ACLU and others, the government has refused to confirm or deny whether it has records about drone strikes, the targeted killing of U.S. citizens, secret detention and abuse of prisoners at the U.S. airbase in Bagram, Afghanistan, NSA surveillance, and torture and rendition of detainees. These are all areas where the public has a vital interest in accurate information about the government’s actions and abuses. By relying on the Glomar response, the government seeks not only to keep the public in the dark and cut off debate, but also to preempt efforts to get courts to order release of specific documents.

 

There are limited circumstances in which a Glomar response may be necessary to protect veritable government secrets, but as I’ve written before in The New York Times (with Jameel Jaffer) and in the NYU Law Review, it has been deployed far beyond acceptable bounds. Perhaps most disturbing is the way the government uses Glomar to facilitate selective and misleading disclosures. Government officials often “leak” information to the press that paints controversial programs in a positive light on the condition that the press withholds their names. But when asked to officially release records under FOIA, those officials clam up and hide behind the Glomar response. The result is an absurd double standard, and our democracy suffers for it.

 

As Radiolab’s story illustrates, the Glomar response was spawned in the clandestine depths of Cold War spycraft. It has unfortunately grown to typify the duplicitous government secrecy of our modern age.

 

Surprise! The US Isn’t Leaving Afghanistan

 

 

November 21, 2013
Indefinite Occupation
by SHELDON RICHMAN

If a draft agreement between the Obama administration and President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan is finalized, U.S. troops will remain in that country indefinitely — instead of being withdrawn at the end of 2014, as the administration has said.

This is a confession of failure. America’s longest war is nowhere near its end.

The draft agreement (PDF) dated July 25, 2013, which was obtained by Richard Engel of NBC News, states,

This Agreement shall enter into force on January 1, 2015.… It shall remain in force until the end of 2024 and beyond, unless terminated pursuant to paragraph 4 of this Article [requiring two years written notice]. [Emphasis added.]

Under the proposed agreement, the U.S. government would continue to train, arm, and assist the Afghan military. “In addition,” the unsigned document continues, “the Parties acknowledge that continued U.S. military operations to defeat al-Qaeda and its affiliates may be appropriate and agree to continue their close cooperation and coordination toward that end.”

“Continued U.S. military operations” reportedly includes raids on the homes of Afghans, which have created so much anti-American sentiment. The issue of raids has held up a final agreement, but the New York Times reports that the logjam was broken when the Obama administration agreed to write a letter “acknowledging American military mistakes in Afghanistan and vowing not to repeat them.”

The Times said the two governments have agreed to terms “allowing American-led raids on Afghan homes under ‘extraordinary circumstances’ to save the lives of American soldiers.” That language is not found in the July 25 draft agreement, which instead contains an Afghan government insertion stating, “No detention or arrest shall be carried out by the United States forces. The United States forces shall not search any homes or other real estate properties.” This restrictive provision must have been dropped from a later draft in return for the U.S. pledge to write the letter conceding “mistakes.”

[UPDATE: In announcing that a final agreement had been reached, Secretary of State John Kerry said a letter of apology was not requested by Karzai. Meanwhile, a group of senators are backing an amendment to the defense appropriations bill that would require President Obama to get congressional permission to keep troops in Afghanistan after 2014.]

Despite a $17 trillion national debt, American taxpayers will continue to be on the hook, as the agreement commits the U.S. government to

seek funds on a yearly basis to support the training, equipping, advising and sustaining of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), so that Afghanistan can independently secure and defend itself against internal and external threats, and help ensure that terrorists never again encroach on Afghan soil and threaten Afghanistan, the region, and the world.

One wonders how independent Afghanistan can be if Americans are footing the bill.

According to NBC’s Nov. 19 report, “The bilateral security agreement will be debated this week in Kabul by around 2,500 village elders, academics and officials in a traditional Loya Jirga. While the Loya Jirga is strictly consultative, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has said he won’t sign it without the Jirga’s approval.”

Under the terms of the agreement, the U.S. government would continue to be the guarantor of Afghanistan’s sovereignty and its authoritarian regime, a commitment that could endanger Americans, as well as cost them much money. The Afghan government, at U.S. insistence, would waive jurisdiction over U.S. military and civilian personnel who commit war crimes. The U.S. government would have sole jurisdiction: “Members of the force and of the civilian component are exempt from personal arrest or detention.” Further, “Afghanistan and the United States agree that members of the force and of the civilian component may not be surrendered to, or otherwise transferred to, the custody of an international tribunal or any other entity or state without the express consent of the United States.”

We don’t know how many U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan, but NBC says that an Afghan source estimated 10,000–15,000, while a U.S. source said 7,000–8,000, along with NATO troops.

What’s clear from the negotiations is that the United States is not close to ending combat operations in Afghanistan, which began in October 2001.

Thousands of Afghan noncombatants have died in the 12-year war, yet Afghanistan remains a dangerous place, and reports of U.S. progress are not merely gross exaggerations, but outright lies. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and its offshoots have spread to Iraq, Syria, the Arabian Peninsula, and Africa.

In other words, the U.S. government has lost a war it never should have begun.

Further U.S.-inflicted bloodshed will do nothing but make matters worse. It’s time for the U.S. military to leave.

Sheldon Richman is vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation in Fairfax, Va. (www.fff.org).