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The latest round of Ron Paul excitement reminds me of this blog’s long and rich relationship with the mad doctor. Herewith a holiday selection of oldies.



Errol Morris writes, “For years, I’ve wanted to make a movie about the John F. Kennedy assassination. Not because I thought I could prove that it was a conspiracy, or that I could prove it was a lone gunman, but because I believe that by looking at the assassination, we can learn a lot about the nature of investigation and evidence.” He comes up with an “op-doc.”
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Sometime commenter and we hope still friend of this blog zunguzungu has an extended analysis of Julian Assange’s stated motives for building WikiLeaks (and on twitter) (which Joe Lieberman may have got kicked off Amazon’s servers). It was well worth my time to read the whole thing, but in brief Assange sees the US government, or large parts of it, as a conspiracy that depends on the secrecy and integrity of its communications to function. Leaking therefore need not disclose any particularly valuable piece of information to render the conspiracy vulnerable.

You destroy the conspiracy, in other words, by making it so paranoid of itself that it can no longer conspire….

zunguzungu points out that Theodore Roosevelt might have approved. Of WikiLeaks, that is; not of Lieberman.

Daniel Schorr, who died yesterday, is being remembered for his remarkable, decades-long career as a print, radio, and television journalist.  I’m familiar with one small slice of this story: I did an intensive study of his coverage of the intelligence beat for CBS News from 1974 to 1976 – coverage that ultimately cost him his job.  I came away from my research and from my interview with Schorr profoundly impressed by his commitment to disclosure and democracy.  Schorr was true believer in the public’s right to know, and the historical record is richer for it.

It was not easy to get Schorr to talk with me about the most painful incident in his career.  Read the rest of this entry »

I was extremely pleased to find today that the 1939 LaFollette committee hearings on free speech and the rights of labor, all seventy-something volumes, were printed, bound, and on the shelf in my library, and I could check out every single volume and take it home until June 2011.  Which got me thinking about public universities, public libraries, and their accessibility to the public, even the Unabomber.

Everyone in Davis knows the Unabomber allegedly used our university library to, um, write his 1995 manifesto.*  The manifesto liberally borrowed from a book by a San Francisco stevedore-cum-philosopher named Eric Hoffer – and I mean “borrowed” in the sense of “if a student did this, she would be referred to Student Judicial Affairs.”   When newspapers published the Unabomber’s manifesto, a UC Davis student noticed that several sections matched underlined passages in the Shields Library copy of Hoffer’s True Believer.

In other words, it looked like the Unabomber had used our library to do his research.  The student notified the librarians, the librarians notified the FBI, the FBI notified the local press, and everyone in Davis began to imagine that they had seen Theodore Kaczynski hunched in a neighboring carrel.

Of course, just because someone underlined the relevant passages in the UCD copy of Hoffer does not mean that Kaczynski underlined those words.  But this scenario always made a certain amount of sense to me.  If one were a hermit in Montana, and one wanted to take a bus to the nearest big library that was completely open to the public, one might indeed think of UCD.  The university library has no barriers to the use of its stacks.  No one has to show identification; there is no visible security.  Anyone can walk in off the street, past the wonderful Arneson egghead sculpture, and read, say, part 66 of the LaFollette committee hearings, or Eric Hoffer’s True Believer, or any other of the 3.5 million volumes in the stacks here, without having to identify or justify himself.

I looked at the three copies of True Believer in the stacks today, and one of them was indeed marked up, with underlining and mysterious notations.  As creepy as it is to think that the Unabomber might have held this book in his hands, I must admit I have a populist pride in the very public nature of my public university’s library.

*See Sacramento Bee, “Unabomber Used Library at UC Davis?” April 10, 1996.

The CIA wanted to discredit Saddam, the known genocidal tyrant, by distributing a video putatively showing him having sex with boys. Did the Church committee hearings teach us absolutely nothing?

It’s nice that when one’s book is seven years old, it’s still on the top of some people’s minds (and lists). I’d like for there to be a tenth anniversary edition, come to that. Come on, stay in print!

The principal problem of the sometimes entertaining The Men Who Stare at Goats was, I thought, that it couldn’t quite decide to be outright funny.1 In this sympathetic account, the movie had three goals:

1) Look at the creativity employed by the military and make fun of it. 2) Show the “shadow side” of how things can go wrong with the inappropriate application of military research. 3) Ask the viewer to think about our involvement in Iraq and how that might have been different had our leaders been more conscious.

And 2) and 3) just aren’t that funny, are they?

It’s hard not to feel similarly about this recently released Pentagon memorandum (pdf), described on Wired here, about the Department of Defense’s relation to CIA mind-control experiments, including MKULTRA and a host of lesser-known MK’s including MKDELTA, MKNAOMI, MKSEARCH, MKOFTEN, and MKCHICKWIT.

Which is to say it’s tempting to find some of it funny, such as the desire “to determine whether EA#3167 [a chemical compound] could be used effectively if applied to the skin through some type of adhesive tape.” (p. 5) Some of it is intriguing trivia; an effort to find “a nonaddictive substitute for codeine” yielded three results, “all are now common drugs: darvon which is used as a pain killer; dextromethorphan which is used in cough syrup; and lomotil which is used as an antidiarrhea drug.” (p. 8) And then of course there’s the creepy, as in the attempt to induce brain concussion without hitting someone on the head—the CIA appears to have relieved the Navy of involvement in the project when it became clear that “human experiments of a type not easily justifiable on medical-therapeutic grounds would be involved.” (p. 9)

And then of course there’s the obvious: when the Navy wanted marijuana and heroin “for use in experiments,” it went to the FBI. (p. 10) Of course you knew that if you wanted to score back in the day the man to hit up was J. Edgar Hoover.

1Well, the principal problem other than that Ewan McGregor couldn’t play up to the level of George Clooney and Jeff Bridges.

Public reports are starting to say what a bunch of fairly knowledgeable people have been quietly saying: the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is a Very Bad Thing because nobody knows how bad it is: nobody knows how much oil is down there or how fast it’s flowing, and therefore nobody knows how long this will go on. What we do seem to know is we don’t know how to stop it:

“We don’t have any idea how to stop this,” Simmons said of the Gulf leak. Some of the proposed strategies—such as temporarily plugging the leaking pipe with a jet of golf balls and other material—are a “joke,” he added.

“We really are in unprecedented waters.”…

If the oil can’t be stopped, the underground reservoir may continue bleeding until it’s dry, Simmons suggested.

The most recent estimates are that the leaking wellhead has been spewing 5,000 barrels (210,000 gallons, or 795,000 liters) of oil a day.

And the oil is still flowing robustly, which suggests that the reserve “would take years to deplete,” said David Rensink, incoming president of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists.

“You’re talking about a reservoir that could have tens of millions of barrels in it.”

Wait, did they say 5,000 barrels? Maybe more:

Ian MacDonald, the FSU oceanographer whose own calculations, based on aerial imagery of the spill, show a spill more like 25,000 barrels of oil a day rather than 5,000 barrels that the Coast Guard came up with, told me, “That looks like a pretty substantial flow rate. I don’t know how they get only 5,000 barrels a day out of that. That’s really quite a gusher.”… I talked to two more experts, Greg McCormack of U-Texas and Bruce Bullock of SMU, and both said there’s no earthly way to estimate the flow based on these videos.

“Anybody who can tell you how much oil is coming out of that thing is likely lying to you,” Bullock told me.

And the administration appears unfortunately to be doing very little and saying less. As our colleague Kathy would point out, this is the kind of thing that ensures someone someday will be saying, “What did the president know and when did he know it?” After all the president has an unfortunate and, well, disappointing record on this subject:

The Obama administration is proposing to open vast expanses of water along the Atlantic coastline, the eastern Gulf of Mexico and the north coast of Alaska to oil and natural gas drilling, much of it for the first time, officials said Tuesday.

UPDATED to add, which is to say, It would be better if the administration were quicker to say what it knows about how badly things are going, rather than leaving it up to BP.

My colleagues and I were discussing the craziest Nixonian moments the other day, and we decided to come up with a top ten list.  Here it is.  Add your own favorites in the comments.  (Alternatively, you could do the things the Disney folks did to Lincoln, and pick quotes from a variety of different moments to create a special Nixonian pastiche.)  Some questions to ponder:

— was Nixon really our craziest president, or would they all sound crazy if they’d installed voice-activated taping systems?

— who did Nixon admit to having a crush on (see the 14-second beep in item 10)?

1.  On thinking big (April 25, 1972)

Nixon: I still think we ought to take the North Vietnamese dikes out now. Will that drown people?

Kissinger: About two hundred thousand people.

Nixon: No, no, no, I’d rather use the nuclear bomb. Have you got that, Henry?

Kissinger: That, I think, would just be too much.

Nixon: The nuclear bomb, does that bother you?…I just want you to think big, Henry, for Christsakes. Read the rest of this entry »

The CIA has released documents confirming that it used an alleged deep-sea mining vessel called the Glomar Explorer to raise part of a sunken Soviet submarine from the floor of the Pacific Ocean in 1974.  This is a step forward for the agency, which in the past has refused to confirm or deny its connection to the Glomar Explorer, but agency officials are still declining to say how much the project cost, how much of the sub they recovered, and what, if any, intelligence they gleaned from the project.

The Soviet submarine sank for unknown reasons about 1,500 miles from Hawaii in March 1968, taking its crew and three nuclear missiles to the bottom of the Pacific.  A year and a half later, the CIA established a task force to study the feasibility of harvesting the 1,750-ton vessel from the ocean floor, some 16,500 feet down.  The task force concluded that it needed to build a huge, specially designed ship with winches that could lower a sling beneath the sub and gently hoist it to the surface.  The government hired Howard Hughes’s Summa Corporation to build the Glomar Explorer, which was disguised as a deep-ocean mining ship.

But then a funny thing happened on the way to the mission: the Cold War began to cool down.  As U.S.-Soviet tensions began to ease, some White House advisers ordered a review of the project, “in light of increasing concern that … the developing political climate might prohibit mission approval.” The nation’s top defense officials were uniformly critical of the project.  The Chief of Naval Operations, the assistant secretary of defense for intelligence, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff all judged the program to be dangerously provocative, absurdly expensive, and unlikely to produce much valuable intelligence.  But CIA director Richard Helms convinced President Nixon to ignore his top military advisers and give the green light to the project. Read the rest of this entry »

Aaron Bady, aka zunguzungu, has a long post up about the crisis facing the UC.

He argues that:

One of the myths about the UC system crisis is the idea that “Sacramento” is the real villain, and that protesting the UC administration is a waste of time. The legislature is the actual problem, people say, because they‘re the ones who have allocated less money to the University system. Instead of occupying the Office of the President of the UC system, such people argue, students should really be protesting politicians in Sacramento.

This seems to me to be both wrongheaded and misinformed. The president (and the regents who appoint him) are Sacramento, while the university community itself has not only had very little role in the massive top-down restructuring of the university that got under way in July, but they have been quite actively shut out of it, by the Regents and by President Mark Yudof, who are doing the job Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed them to do. Which is to say, when students from the university protest against the regents and the President, they are protesting Sacramento. The legislature in Sacramento may have created the problem by cutting funding for higher education, but it’s the representatives and appointees of our Sacramento-based governor who have turned the problem into an opportunity to privatize higher education in California.

This is an important point, because — and this needs to be emphasized — the scandal of the administration’s conduct is not the fact that they’re cutting services while raising fees, at least not in and of itself. In bad economic times, some kind of response is necessary. The scandal is that Mark Yudof and the regents are using the crisis of the moment to push forward a plan to privatize the UC system that has long been in the works and is geared to be permanent. And they are doing it by assuming “emergency powers” which allow them to arbitrarily overturn the precedents and policy that would otherwise explicitly prevent them from doing so, everything from caps on the amount that student fees can be raised to the contracts they’ve signed with university employees to the “Master Plan” for higher education that the state of California established fifty years ago. So if we want to talk about “Sacramento,” then let’s do so. But we need, then, to talk about two things: first, how the Republicans that run California through the governor’s mansion have been trying to privatize the state’s public education for a very long time, and, second, how the regents and Mark Yudof have been using the rhetoric of “crisis” to push that agenda through, bit by bit and step by step, replacing the UC’s traditional system of shared governance with a system of top-down corporate management.

The whole post is worth your time. So click on over and have a look.

Chris Hayes has the cover story in this week’s Nation with a case why we need a new Church Committee to investigate CIA abuses. Or rather, we need something even better than the Church Committee.

As historian Kathy Olmsted argues in her book Challenging the Secret Government, Church was never quite able to part with this conception of good Democrats/bad Republicans. Confronted with misdeeds under Kennedy and Johnson, he chose to view the CIA as a rogue agency, as opposed to one executing the president’s wishes. This characterization became the fulcrum of debate within the committee. At one point Church referred to the CIA as a “rogue elephant,” causing a media firestorm. But the final committee report shows that to the degree the agency and other parts of the secret government were operating with limited control from the White House, it was by design. Walter Mondale came around to the view that the problem wasn’t the agencies themselves but the accretion of secret executive power: “the grant of powers to the CIA and to these other agencies,” he said during a committee hearing, “is, above all, a grant of power to the president.”

A contemporary Church Committee would do well to follow Mondale’s approach and not Church’s.

Ackerman concurs, using the same pullquote citing Kathy and adding, “I don’t know how someone this perceptive and this insightful and this diligent is allowed to go on television.”

Have I mentioned how you should buy this book?

So, this is a Fox News video called “Under Attack Again”, which says the CIA is suffering much as it did during the Church Committee era, and a bunch of stuff you should cock a skeptical eye at. But wait — who’s that strikingly expert voice we hear in the middle?

In fairness, they did go to someone who knew what she was talking about. But I bet she had more to say than we heard. I think if you want to know some of that you should probably buy this book. Which I’m sure you have, but maybe you need an extra one or two or three, to give to your friends. Buy some for your conservative friends and tell them you saw the author on Fox News. Go on, it’ll help the economy.

After fielding yet another media call about the supposed “dismantling” of the CIA by the Church Committee, I feel moved to systematically address the neoconservative assumptions that dominate the current debate.  In 1975, staffers in the Gerald Ford White House, most notably chief of staff Dick Cheney, started an organized effort to spin the press coverage of Senator Frank Church’s investigation of the CIA.

The talking points of the Ford administration are now taken as gospel truth.  This is not just a matter of historical accuracy; it’s directly relevant to the current discussion.  Because if the Church Committee did destroy the CIA, then we can say that “history tells us” that all CIA investigations are inherently destructive and will endanger our safety.

So, let’s look at the record.  Right after Watergate, Senator Church’s Senate Select Committee to Investigate Government Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities launched a massive inquiry into past crimes of the CIA and FBI.   Despite the heated rhetoric you hear these days, it did not do certain things.

1.  The Church Committee did not dismantle the CIA.

The committee revealed that the CIA had committed crimes and abuses of power, including mail opening, wiretapping, illegal spying on American citizens in the United States, and assassination plots against foreign leaders.  Thanks to the Church Committee, we now know that the CIA engaged mafia dons to stab, poison, shoot, and blow up Fidel Castro; that it tried to poison Patrice Lumumba’s toothpaste; and that it hired goons to kidnap the general in Chile who was trying to uphold his country’s constitutional democracy and thus stood in the way of a US-backed coup.  (He was killed in the course of the kidnapping.)  The committee also revealed the FBI’s infamous COINTELPRO program, including the harassment of Martin Luther King, Jr.

As a result of the committee’s investigation, Congress passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which requires warrants for wiretapping, and created the Senate Intelligence Committee. FISA did not destroy the CIA; it merely required intelligence agencies to explain to a top-secret panel why they wanted to wiretap people in the United States, thus avoiding the bad old days when J. Edgar Hoover and Richard Nixon listened to the phone conversations of anyone who had the nerve to criticize them.  The creation of the Senate Intelligence Committee actually laid the foundation for reducing the number of oversight committees; there were eight congressional committees with jurisdiction over the CIA in 1976, but only two – one intelligence committee in each house – after 1980.  So, it’s hard to see how this legacy amounts to “dismantling” the CIA.

2.  The Church Committee did not prompt the firing of hundreds of CIA agents.

It was Jimmy Carter’s CIA director, Admiral Stansfield Turner, not the committee, who cut 800 positions from the covert operations side of the agency.  The positions were eliminated mostly through attrition. Though he only fired 17 people, this episode is often exaggerated by agency supporters and falsely attributed to the influence of the Church Committee.

3.  The Church Committee did not name or cause the deaths of CIA agents.

The committee named only the highest-level officials, whose names were known to everyone.  Some extreme anti-CIA activists did publish lists of the names of agents in the field, and as a result, terrorists killed the CIA station chief in Athens, Richard Welch.  The Ford administration, led by Cheney, waved the bloody shirt and implied that the committee had been responsible for Welch’s death, but even CIA officials themselves later admitted that this was just spin.

4. The Church Committee was not an unambiguous victory for liberals.

As I argue in Real Enemies, after forcing the nation to confront its past, Church found that he had strengthened a trend he abhorred: the ultra-right, libertarian rejection of all governmental authority. The percentage of Americans who said they distrusted the government actually increased during and after Church’s investigation.  Still, the senator was certain he had done the right thing. “We must never become weary of being vigilant,” he said. “We dare not shrink from another redemptive investigation.”

If Frank Church and his colleagues did not destroy the CIA, then what did they do?  They revealed that our nation had made mistakes, in hopes that we would not repeat them.  They proved that we do indeed live in a constitutional democracy, where the rule of law is (eventually) respected.  And they pushed Dick Cheney over the edge, convincing him that Democrats are America-hating traitors who will stop at nothing to undermine our nation’s defenses.

The current claims by the so-called Birther movement that Barack Obama is not a “natural-born citizen” of the United States may seem part of the lunatic fringe. But the Birthers’ basic premise – that the U.S. president is actually the agent of an enemy conspiracy – has a long history in America, and it highlights the tension between American openness and American paranoia.

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