The Covert Action Virus

Twenty or so years ago, I had a conversation with a soil scientist of my acquaintance, who had recently returned from an extended trip through Central America. He had been teaching alternative farming techniques to peasant farmers being squeezed into less and less available land, as part of a private aid group. It sounded to me like an ideal gig for the Peace Corps, so I was surprised when he answered: “Uh-uh. No way. If you’re in Central America with the Peace Corps, everyone just assumes you’re CIA. Nobody will talk to you, and you can’t get anything done.”
I was taken aback, given that, as the Peace Corps itself says:

Persons who have been employed by an intelligence agency, or otherwise have been associated with intelligence activities, are ineligible to serve as volunteers. This exclusionary policy is one aspect of the broader, long-standing policy of maintaining an absolute separation between Peace Corps and intelligence activities conducted by the U.S. government. This absolute separation is necessary to protect volunteers’ safety and to maintain the trust and confidence of the people in the countries in which volunteers serve.

The inverse, however, is also true. Because of this exclusionary policy, the Peace Corps would in fact make an excellent cover for an agent. This goes to the very nature of the deception that is the core of what intelligence agents do: it does not matter what lie is believed, as long as a lie is believed. As long as the target believes something that is not true, he/she can be manipulated. Which means that everything is a potential cover story, a legend, and a potential target for infiltration and exploitation. Every bureau, every commercial outlet, every information source is a potential target. Every cell of the body politic is susceptible to this, either proactively or by being compromised; a virus of deceit, secrecy, and covert action.

The problems with this are obvious, and became apparent to me again this morning, when I opened Firedoglake and saw USAID Fake HIV Center in Cuba Undermines Global Health Efforts. I followed the links; the gist, as reported by the AP, is that “Over at least two years, the U.S. Agency for International Development — best known for overseeing billions of dollars in U.S. humanitarian aid — sent nearly a dozen neophytes from Venezuela, Costa Rica and Peru to gin up opposition in Cuba.” These untrained agents, supplied with encrypted flash drives, and codes for communications, “posed as tourists, visited college campuses, and used…[a]n HIV-prevention workshop one called “the perfect excuse” to recruit political activists.” Perhaps not surprisingly, the operation was set up by the same contractor that dreamed up the failed “Cuban Twitter” project.

This program is being defended by the Obama Administration: according to State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, the program “enabled support for Cuban civil society, while providing a secondary benefit of addressing the desires Cubans express for information and training about HIV prevention.” Note the moment of honesty: the secondary benefit of the HIV awareness program was HIV awareness. The first was covert action.

This type of covert action is not rare, as Peter at FDL goes on to elaborate; nor is it just medical aid being used as cover. The fake NGO that was used to decapitate a FARC unit in Columbia is missing, but he includes the fake hepatitis vaccine program in Pakistan that helped identify Usama bin Laden-since then, the Pakistani Taliban has outlawed polio vaccination and killed 60 vaccination workers, allowing polio to make a robust comeback. Another one Peter could have pointed to was the role of the NED-the National Endowment for Democracy-in Ukraine, where it has spent tens of millions of dollars on a wide variety of programs. As  One of the founders of the NED-“whose purpose is to support foreign organizations sympathetic to US foreign policy goals” explained it in 1991“A lot of what we do was done 25 years ago covertly by the CIA.” And so it is: whether it be Nicaragua, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Albania, Iran, Cuba, Mongolia, or Venezuela, the NED is there. No wonder Putin was pissed about US operations in Ukraine. Every dollar spent there was intended to lessen Russian influence. Every single aspect of the “civil society” NED is supporting there can be considered a covert operation targeted on Russian interests.

And that’s the real issue-the meta-issue. The effect of using everything as a cover for covert operations is the certain destruction of the ability of people to have faith in institutions that, in a democracy, require faith to operate (rampant conspiracy theory-the guaranteed response to pervasive secrecy-has the same effect). You can have democracy-or you can have deceit and covert action. You can have citizen participation-or you can have counterintelligence programs designed to “expose disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize…” You can have journalism-or you can have Operation MOCKINGBIRD, in which the CIA compromised dozens of journalists and fed them CIA propaganda. You can have community policing-or you can have Phoenix Program-style counterinsurgency as law enforcement, in which pervasive surveillance, secret and unconstitutional police methods, and Special Operations teams combine to “neutralize threats.” Radley Balko reports an average of fifty thousand SWAT raids annually in the US…we have come a hell of a long way from “to serve and protect.”

And that’s the point-when everything is a covert action bureau, or cover, that is all it is. It cannot be an institution that operates by deceit and covert violence, AND be a democratically-controlled institution responsive to citizens’ needs. You can have democracy, and freedom, and all the messy processes that democratic institutions require to operate; or you can have the expediency, secrecy, deception, and violence of government-by-secret-police-agency. When your service providers collect and sell your information; when your cell phone is tracked by retailers in the mall; when your movements are tracked via car tracking, facial recognition programs, and ubiquitous cameras; and when your police subvert oversight by deceiving responsible authority, your institutions have become spy agencies, whose tools are secrecy and deception: anathema to self-government in a free society. A paradigm of covert action, or a representative democracy. You cannot have both.

You cannot have both, and there will be no progress until this question is answered, definitively. Subverting change in defense of the status quo, after all, is what intelligence agencies do. Our government is infected with a virus, that has seemingly moved into every cell; healing America will require, first, a robust immune response from a citizenry that will not be able to suspend the necessary weight of disbelief much longer, and second, an intense vaccination course to keep the patient from  relapsing.


All Over the Place

Summer is winding down for many families in the South, where school starts before Labor Day.

This is why, I imagine, so many of the writers here are busy.

So here are some links of just some of what we’ve been reading; please let us know what you’ve been reading and writing in the comments!

America’s Expanding Surveillance State and Perpetual War

Of all the Obama administrationrelated investigations currently underway, the most disturbing and possibly unconstitutional one is the Justice Department’s seizure of reporters’ phone records and emails at the Associated Press and of Fox News reporter James Rosen, whose comings and goings at the State Department appear to have been tracked by the FBI. A judge granted a search warrant on the basis that Rosen was possibly violating the Espionage Act (1917), a law intended to stop state secrets from being shared with foreign governments.

The Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson excoriated the Obama administration for these actions in a recent op-ed:

“Before president Obama took office, the Espionage Act had been used to prosecute leakers a grand total of three times, including the 1971 case of Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. Obama’s Justice Department has used the act six times. And counting.

 Obviously, the government has a duty to protect genuine secrets. But the problem is that every administration, without exception, tends to misuse the “top secret” stamp—sometimes from an overabundance of caution, sometimes to keep inconvenient or embarrassing information to coming to light.”

Fred Kaplan at Slate has a different perspective on Fred Rosen’s responsibility in the reporting of his FOX News story:

“In Rosen’s case, the alarm bells went off not because he reported that North Korea was about to conduct a nuclear-weapons test but because he reported that the CIA learned of this fact from a source inside North Korea. In other words, Rosen revealed that the CIA had a source inside North Korea. It’s unclear whether the source was a human spy or a communications intercept; it’s also irrelevant because, thanks to this story, the source is probably no longer alive or active.”

National security requires a balance between protecting Americans and preserving constitutional freedoms. Ever since the “war on terror” began, Americans have largely accepted that in order to remain safe from terrorists they may have to relinquish some of their civil liberties. This is problematic. If we agree that one minor, intrusive action is okay, and that action leads to incrementally more intrusive actions over time, at what point does the government rein in its own behavior? Can it? At what point do citizens find it unacceptable and push back?

English: President George W. Bush and Presiden...

English: President George W. Bush and President-elect Barack Obama meet in the Oval Office of the White House Monday, November 10, 2008. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When Barack Obama was elected in 2008, many Americans, particularly those on the left, hoped the Patriot Act would be abolished. While I applaud the President’s decision to make torture illegal, he has continued, and in some instances even expanded, many of the Bush national security policies. One example of that expansion is the use of drones. The use of drones began in 2002. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism the Bush administration carried out 52 strikes over both terms. At least 300 strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia were recorded during Obama’s first term. Furthermore, Americans would be up in arms if other countries were dropping bombs from drones onto U.S. soil to kill terrorists. Think about that.

These unmanned planes are designed to be highly targeted and aimed at leaders and high-level operatives of Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, yet it is regularly reported that innocent civilians, including children, are killed in these attacks. The Obama administration claims the numbers of civilian casualties are low, but many citizens of these countries refute those claims. Not surprisingly, this breeds resentment of the United States and creates terrorist sympathizers.


Many also hoped the era of warrantless wiretapping by the National Security Agency would go by the way-side once Obama took office. In 2008, the Bush administration legalized this eavesdropping through the FISA Amendments Act, and part of that bill retroactively granted amnesty to the telecom companies involved, shielding them from prosecution even though what they were doing was illegal. The telecom companies were doing this at the request of the government. Consequently, the FISA Amendments Act, by extension, also shielded the Bush administration from any criminal wrong-doing. Senator Barack Obama voted for this in 2008, and in December 2012, as President, signed a five-year extension of the law.

Then there is the continued use of indefinite detentions for suspected terrorists. Some of these prisoners have been held for years then found to be innocent of any wrongdoing, or found to have had tenuous connections to terrorists, or none at all. Many detainees are currently being held indefinitely without being charged with a crime. This is wrong; it’s a human rights issue. Imagine being locked away, left to rot in a foreign prison, no contact with your loved ones and no trial date in sight. Admittedly, there are bad guys in these prisons too, but that doesn’t mean some rule of law shouldn’t be followed. We are America after all; we should set the standard for human rights.


Photo attributed to: Joshua Sherurcij

Lastly, is the prosecution of government whistleblowers. Whistleblowers only come forward to report fraud, abuse, and crime when they feel safe to do so. The excuse of “national security,” freely used, to punish whistleblowers is chilling. We need whistleblowers. Otherwise too many politicians or government appointees will escape accountability for crimes or misuse of power. That’s not to say that leaking classified information should go unpunished either.

National security is important, but the American people can be protected and freedom of the press maintained without government intrusiveness, particularly in relation to the use of increased surveillance of Americans, which most of us find reprehensible. Technology serves us well and makes our daily and work lives easier, but with technological advances also come security and privacy challenges. These are major issues with which Americans and our leaders are grappling and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. One writer even warns that left unchecked, future presidents could be even worse than Bush or Obama.

Americans should consider and answer these questions: 1.) How many of our civil liberties are we willing to give up in the name of security and fighting terrorism? 2.) How long is it acceptable for the U.S. to be involved in conflict after conflict in foreign lands? 3.) How much money are we willing to spend to continue feeding the military-industrial complex at the expense of other pressing domestic issues?

On May 23, President Obama spoke about his national security policy and the plans to change it. You can read the transcript or watch it below:

Only time will tell how effective the proposed changes will be. History will be the ultimate judge.

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Evergreen Up Late: Time Has Come Today

‘evenin’, all-

Lacking any kind of coherent theme or statement tonight beyond desperate meandering between distractions from what I should be doing, I just couldn’t resist the urge to headline the title of tonight’s song selection, the wonderfully over-the-top garage psychedelia of the Chambers Brothers. Cue it up, crank it up, and check out this sh*t:

Riffing off a theme from last night, again, the satire goes where Presidents fear to tread.

More proof that you should always…just stay the hell out of Florida.

If this is okay, why not just demand DNA samples and be done with it?

As long as you avoid hospitals and nuclear plants, then..what?

Well, at least we can efficiently exterminate each other whilst we wait.

Because you just can’t keep a good fascist Big Brother idea down.

And finally, because it well and truly has…

The best of all possible tomorrows to you all-

Evergreen Up Late: Remote Control

So, I’m going to be on TV tonight, probably even as you read this, and thus unable to do my usual frantic last-second scramble to cut something together that has to be re-edited at least twice after it’s been published. Luckily for me, it turns out that there’s this very cool bloggy thing called “scheduler” that I am going to attempt to employ. Based on current data, odds of success are no more than 50-50, which means there’s an excellent chance that I’ll be on camera trying to thoughtfully answer a question from the host while my phone buzzes angrily in my pocket, and if it’s loud enough for the mic to pick up, then that’s for the win. The fact that at least this time the complaint from Management isn’t about obscenity or otherwise sullying the reputation of this fine Institute will be of at least some solace as I stumble over my words and slap at my thigh in the attempt to silence the damn thing, causing the host to jump backwards in surprise and yell “Fuck!” into a live mic. If it’s like last time, rather than shut the damn thing off, I’ll manage rather to switch the speaker to ON. Merriment will ensue….I can see it all now. And no, I’m not going to reveal either the name of the show, the network, nor the market, nor the time. I’ll be appearing under yet another of my seemingly-endless series of pseudonyms, but, just like the way the re-use of a one-time pad by a spy makes the pad vulnerable to cryptography, to allow this name to be cross-referenced with that name would ruin the whole game. I’d be EXPOSED. Naked before a ruthless, judgmental world, like the little stuffed doll at the end of The Wall. And who needs that? There’d be recriminations, hurt feelings…and possibly even a hearing or two. And questions. People would demand answers.
And I’m not going through that again, I tell you. So, as long as Up Late is on remote control tonight, let’s also look at:

Black helicopters-not just for nuts anymore.

Because flying death robots are clearly the best way to win hearts and…oh never mind.

Come on, try it yourself. Full-motion video and audio available for only a small upcharge.

Do you suppose people grasp that the last human fighter pilot may have already been born?

And really, how could this possibly go wrong?

At least someone is saying something.

And so, I ask only that you please stay In the Light.

The best of all possible tomorrows to you all-

Evergreen Up Late: Is Oscar a Zombie?

Yes, it’s Oscar night.  The Academy Awards.  Some of you are psyched about that.

And some of you are psyched that it’s another Sunday, and Sunday means a new Walking Dead.   Maybe some of you do both Oscars and Walking Dead, but we don’t think there’s much crossover.

And then there’s that group of social outcasts who don’t watch either.  We’ve got our eye on you.

Speaking of movies and zombies (Yes, that was a segue.), it is the opinion of the Up-Late staff that this is the greatest zombie movie ever.  Some people say it’s also a commentary on consumer culture (Even dead, they can’t stop going to the mall), but we’re not convinced.

Zombie movies don’t get nominated for Oscars.  Unless you consider intentionally reanimated dogs to be zombies.

You know who was in an awesome zombie movie and was also nominated for a best-actor Oscar?  This very funny man.  He’s our kind of Oscar nominee.

That’s pretty much it.  We can only get so much mileage out of this theme, but we’ll leave you with this advice:  If you plan to be up late tonight, keep these rules in mind.

And, as always, we wish you the best of all possible tomorrows.