By John Kendall Hawkins
Who is this guy, Jim Mitchell? Evidently, I overslept and woke up smack dab in the middle of the post-Truth era. Where does a man get the moxie to have his work comprehensively condemned and declared illegal by a Senate Intelligence sub-committee, and then turn around, look us square in the eye, and declare he would “do it all again’? But that’s what Mitchell, the so-called “architect” of the CIA’s Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (EIT) did the other day at a pretrial hearing before the military commission at Guantanamo.
How can this guy be a self-described “strong supporter” of Amnesty International? Has he read what they’ve published about his tactics? Look: “The perverse ‘work’ of these psychologists has dramatically set back the global fight against torture. The interrogation methods they championed have had a rippling effect around the world.” Amnesty International should immediately cancel his subscription, telling him they refuse to take money bloodied by torture. But maybe it was a generous donation.
The American Psychological Association (APA) is appalled enough by his behaviorism, although he is not an APA member, that they’ve tried to take away his license to practice counseling (presumably) in Texas. Emotion denied. Why Texas? It’s like he’s performing some kind of stations-of-the-Cross — first Alaska, then Florida, then Texas, sweet Jesus, can a presidential run be far behind? Or maybe he’s angling for a job in the recently relocated to Texas Black Museum — where it — and he — spiritually belong.
Where did this guy get his hubris? Who inflated his ego? Why was he hired in the first place? Sydney Gottlieb must be rolling over in his grave. We have a country that for little more reason than amped-up paranoia brought into the USA after WW2 some of the most evil war criminals known to Man under Operation Paperclip, whose rhetorical motto was: Why hang them at the Hague when we can hire them to help kill baddies before the Russians do. Vivisection. Mind control. Eye-ball poppings. They really knew how to take the glove off back in the day.
But Mitchell? Master of Science in Psychology from the University of Alaska. Specialty: counseling. Not Maslow’s arty-farty Self-Becoming kind, but the woof-woof-inspired salivation army of those who’ve learned to be helpless and who only Jimmy can rebuild with his science degree. (I try to picture Mitchell’s Alaskan clients and their unique delusions.) And then, lo, there’s more: a PhD in nutrition. Thesis: For hypertension, what works better exercise or diet? After he’d relieved Zubaydah of his hyper-tension, did he offer dietary advice? We already know there was plenty of exercise. What am I missing? Just how long did I over-sleep? Is it some kind of CIA gag?
And Mitchell didn’t like it when he was called “a pussy” by some CIA hombre calling himself “The Preacher,” who detained the psychologist himself at a “black site” against his will, and forced Mitchell to continue waterboarding Zubaydah — even after Mitchell had reached a breakpoint rapportment, and said, “no more.” But, Mitchell tearily explained at the Gitmo hearing, he went ahead and pseudo-drowned his newfound poetical buddy again anyway, because he was ordered to (remind you of another famous psychology experiment?). Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times, when all was done and done. And he’d do it again.
But he did ‘rat out’ Charlie Wise, the Preacher, to the ICIG for bringing to the EIT table Sydney Gottlieb’s KUBARK manual that Wise used to train Contras in Nicaragua, including rectal feeding. Wow. That IG report makes Jim Mitchell a bonafide whistleblower. I don’t know if that’s irony or what. But Mitchell ended up winning his “turf war” with Wise, because soon thereafter the asshole Preacher, and his laying-of-hands-on approach, retired from the CIA, lived a cloistered life (as far as we’re allowed to know), and died of an apparent heart attack in 2003.
However, nothing Mitchell did surpassed his “I’d do it again” overzealousness of waterboarding the presumed, and to this day merely alleged, Mastermind of the 9/11 attack, Khaled Sheik Mohammed. KSM was blubbooled 183 times. In the film, The Report, Jim Mitchell is depicted as panicky, because the effectiveness of his EIT is being seriously called into question. (In the film, his CIA colleagues don’t look convinced from the beginning, as he shows powerpoint slides of his intended techniques). Because the legality of what they’re doing depends on the effectiveness of EIT (“It’s only torture if it doesn’t work.”), Mitchell and the CIA are keen to show amazing results. KSM is broken, becomes genteel, and writes “tribute” poetry to an interrogator’s wife, they claim.
Of course, it was CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou, in an interview with ABC’s Brian Ross, that provided most of the details of what happened to Abu Zubaydah and KSM. Kiriakou claims that, because “they hate us more than they love life,” drastic measures are required to get through to them. A conflicted Kiriakou told us that waterboarding worked (p.5), that it provided valuable information (p.6) that helped thwart future attacks, and that though he now regarded it as torture he left open the door for using it again. Like Abu Zubaydah, waterboarding produced another poet. (p.12) The CIA, he said, now had sufficient leads developed. “And — as a result, water-boarding, at least right now [my italics], is unnecessary,” (p.8) Kiriakou said.
But one wonders how Kiriakou and Mitchell would answer Dianne Feinstein’s question posed in the film: “If it works, why do we need to do it 183 times?”
I try to avoid thinking of the Torture Report any more, because then I have to remember Feinstein’s committee report was only necessary because the CIA destroyed the video tapes of their interrogations of detainees before they could be evaluated. I’d also have to recall that CIA Director John Brennan ordered a breach of the sub-committee’s computers — almost certainly a criminal violation of the separation of powers. (And he’d certainly do it again.) When I do find myself thinking of all this depressing shit that must betoken the end of empire (if not more), I try to use an alternative entryway — like Sid Jacobson’s visual learner-friendly version of the Feinstein committee’s findings: The Torture Report: A Graphic Adaptation.
But probably we should honor the artist and poet-in-residence at Guantanamo, Abu Zubaydah, which probably has more emotional depth and verisimilitude embedded in the arresting drawings than Jacobson’s. I don’t know if KSM draws, but I have a gut feeling he’s going to turn out to be some kind of beat poet. Recently, I filed a Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) request to obtain copies of KSM’s poetry. If it was written on Uncle Sam’s dime, then it belongs to our exceptional democracy and we should be able to see it.
I would love to read KSM’s paeans and tributes to CIA rapport-specialist Deuce Martinez’s wife. (Did he show her pictures?) I almost feel inspired enough, in thinking about it, to write a paean to her myself. I would volunteer to collate and honestly edit Gitmo detainee poems, illustrated by AZ and other graffiti artists, and publish them on Amazon for Kindle download.
I pace, wondering what sounds I will hear, and think of the office water cooler blubbooling — in iambic pentameter. The Misfit at the end of Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” free-associates. John Donne comes back, like Quasimodo, to fuck with this old tolled-out “soul.” I hear:
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
Fucked, and under water.
By John Kendall Hawkins
“Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.”
-from The Manchurian Candidate (1959) by Richard Condon
When you think about it, after 9/11, Karl Rove, Dick Cheney and George W. Bush did Americans a favor by “taking off the gloves,” so that we could wring our hands to the toll for freedom in the upcoming dark battle against Terror and Reality-based thinking. Don’t ask for whom the bell tolls, we thought, it tolls for Us. The torture trills and flourishes that followed, poor Abu rolling over in his shallow Ghraib, and the mad scientists brought in to offer up new, frightful concepts in torture, such as waterboarding, were the American equivalent of Chinese drip-drip-driven insanity, but, in our shock and aweful style, we wrung out the entire black cloud — the whole inshallalah — on one tormented “terrorist” after another.
We video-taped the “enhanced interrogations techniques” (EIT), but later destroyed the tapes, much to Congress’s quiet chagrin, because they would have shown that the methods were excessive and the results meaningless. Later, much later, in 2014, Senator Diane Feinstein’s intelligence committee found that EIT were ineffective — and consequently illegal. (See the Senate’s The Torture Report and the recent film, for more details on the committee findings, and CIA head John Brennan’s illegal attempts to quash the report by spying on the Senate.) In effect, her committee found, we tortured some terrorists who provided no valuable information, and tortured many, many others who turned out to be not terrorists at all. We rang dem bells some more.
The only CIA officer who ever went to jail for revealing the excesses of EIT, John Kirikaou, admitted, in a 2007 interview (pages 15-18 especially) with ABC’s Brian Ross, that enhanced interrogation “amounted to” torture, and that he and colleagues thought it “necessary at the time,” and that “it worked,” leading, he said, to countless heads-up details that led to Jack Bauer-like last minute interventions in new al Qaeda plots. It almost sounded like an apologist’s gambit.
Kirikaou went to jail, became dubbed a whistleblower (by the likes of Glenn Greenwald), and was in jail when the Torture Report came out — and contradicted his assertions about the effectiveness of enhanced interrogation. (He’d known about its ineffectiveness a year or so before his 2007 ABC News interview. In February 2015, he told Amy Goodman, “It wasn’t until something like 2005 or 2006 that we realized that that just simply wasn’t true—[it] wasn’t producing any information—and that these techniques were horrific.” So, he knew a year or so before the Ross interview). Despite this apparent contradiction, and its implications, the MSM were supportive of his ‘conversation starter’ about EIT — especially waterboarding.
Reading Stephen Kinzer’s new book, Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control, you could find yourself believing that there were parallel Americas. The list of grisly murders, lethal cover-ups, assassination mindedness, and graphic details of super-enhanced interrogation techniques that made up the CIA’s approach to handling the Fifties demonstrate unequivocally that the gloves were off way before Dick Cheney publicly stated the Bush administration’s intended approach to those that done us harm on 9/11. If anything, Kinzer shows in Poisoner in Chief, that, by comparison, Cheney may have put the gloves back on to fight al Qaeda. The stuff Kinzer details about CIA operations, especially in the Sydney Gottlieb era, is so depraved you wonder if you’ve been conned by Bush and company.
Americans have been in a cold war with Russians since 1949, the year they successfully exploded an atom bomb of their own and the nuclear arms race began. It has been a relationship powered by fear, paranoia, and not a little madness, as America sees her ambition to be an empire partially checked by Russia and her potent missiles. If Kinzer’s read of the Fifties was accurate, it was an era marked, for Americans (and maybe the Soviets) by the terror of instant nuclear annihilation. There were fall-out shelters, procedures for hiding under your desk, and the occasional TV and radio transmission interruptions by the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS). Kinzer repeatedly emphasizes that this fear of annihilation was so often proffered as the motivation for the actions early covert operators.
George Orwell’s 1948 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four was not only a look to the future but a pulse-taking of his zeitgeist. The Spanish Civil War and the Great Depression sandwiched between two world wars crushed the spirits of millions. The kind of nihilistic impulses described by Erich Fromm in The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness or even in The Waste Land poetry of T.S. Eliot seemed manifest everywhere. Ideologies duked it out: Capitalism, Communism, and Fascism. Out of one nation fearing another’s impulses, weapons of mass destruction had evolved — from brute force to chemical weapons to biological weapons to LSD and other psychoactives to nuclear weapons. This is what was on the minds of writers, politicians, soldiers, and the CIA, back in the day.
So when the Soviets exploded their first atomic weapon in 1949 and then followed that up with the launch of Sputnik in 1957, American spies felt that they were dealing with a race against time. They started gathering German scientists, Nazi eugenicists, Japanese torturers, and others of twisted scientific persuasion who could lead military programs — especially in mind control. Kinzer cites CIA director Allen Dulles’ mission statement as the basis for what the agency did:
By the early 1950s he had concluded that mind control could be the decisive weapon of the coming age…Any nation that discovered ways to manipulate the human psyche, he believed, could rule the world.
The CIA has always wanted to rule the world in the name of ‘national security’.
Operation Paperclip was the means by which totally unpalatable scientists — mostly from Nazi Germany — were allowed to escape post-war justice at Nuremberg, in order to help the Cold War effort against the Soviets. So, what was supposed to be a patriotic fervor to keep Mama America safe for baking apple pies, soon led to the recruitment of war criminals.
Most prominently, from Nazi Germany, came Kurt Blome, who had been director of the Nazi biological warfare program. Kinzer writes,
They had learned how long it takes for human beings to die after exposure to various germs and chemicals, and which toxins kill most efficiently. Just as intriguing, they had fed mescaline and other psychoactive drugs to concentration camp [especially Dachau] in experiments aimed at finding ways to control minds or shatter the human psyche.
He fit right in with Dulles’s vision. Their thinking was, writes Kinzer, “instead of hanging Blome, let’s hire him.”
But the most important decision Dulles made regarding his desire to find a way to reach his Mission Accomplished goal was to hire Sydney Gottlieb to run his research and development umbrella program in mind control. As head of the Technical Services Staff headquartered at Fort Detrick in Maryland, Gottlieb coordinated the hundreds of myriad sub-projects and experiments that made up the notorious MK-ULTRA program. Though many twisted details would eventually be disseminated about the doings of these experiments, Gottlieb himself was regarded as a quiet and unassuming man. Kinzer describes him: “[He was] a psychic voyager, far from anyone’s stereotype of the career civil servant. His home was an eco-lodge in the woods with outdoor toilets and a vegetable garden. He meditated, wrote poetry, and raised goats.”
Nevertheless, one of the first things that Gottlieb did was to not only hire Nazi scientists, but head East, to Japan, to confer (and hire) General Shiro Ishii, a possibly criminally insane Japanese army surgeon who had headed Unit 731, a horror camp in Manchuria, where Ishii went to work on internees. Kinzer describes prisoners
slowly roasted by electricity…hung upside down…locked into high-pressure chambers until their eyes popped out; spun in centrifuges infected with anthrax, syphilis, plague, cholera, and other diseases; forcibly impregnated to provide infants for vivisection; bound to stakes to be incinerated by soldiers testing flamethrowers; and slowly frozen to observe the progress of hypothermia.
Blome and Ishii were model types of the vision the CIA sought in order to gain an edge on similar Russian experimenters looking to create ‘Manchurian candidates’.
Black sites, East and West, were set up, where “expendables” were brought to be mercilessly and brutally tortured, sometimes in such ways that they could not be identified as humans anymore. These sites were intentionally beyond US accountability, not set up to interrogate terrorists but to experiment on the mind. Such experiments were not carried out only overseas, but, also, stateside people were unknowing participants in CIA miscreance.
Project Bluebird, for instance, called for an ‘experiment’ on everyone in San Francisco. Kinzer describes how a psychiatric team performed Operation Sea Spray:
scientists from Camp Detrick directed the spraying of a bacterium called Serratia marcescens into the coastal mist. According to samples taken afterward at forty-three sites, the spraying reached all of San Francisco’s 800,000 residents and also affected people in Oakland, Berkeley, Sausalito, and five other cities.
Scores of people had to seek help at a hospital, a few people died from toxic reactions, but these psychiatric scientists proved that the Bay Area was vulnerable to germ warfare. Just in case anyone was wondering.
Gottlieb kept adding shadier characters to perform more and more outrageous tasks, in his effort to nail down how humans tick, deep down inside. But nobody was shadier than ex-cop George Hunter White, who, writes Kinzer, stood out “even in the dazzling MK-ULTRA cast of obsessed chemists, coldhearted spymasters, grim torturers, hypnotists, electroshockers, and Nazi doctors.” Gottlieb had him open up a “safe house” in Greenwich Village where he lured unsuspecting expendables and others to parties where they could be doused with LSD for study (think: the psychedelic scene from Midnight Cowboy). In 1949, he arrested Billie Holiday for opium possession, which she claimed was “planted” and which put her through an “ordeal” that Kinzer says led to “her decline toward early death.” He later worked for Senator Joseph McCarthy.
Later, White was transferred back to his hometown of San Francisco, where he expanded on his doings in Greenwich Village, starting up a safe house that added the full gamut of sex acts to LSD studies, including Operation Midnight Climax. He leaned toward fascist leathers and stilettos and provided prostitutes with “get out of jail free” assurances for assisting in the experiments. There were kundalini-driven orgies, whips and chains, acid trips, and gentle Gottlieb with White’s wife, “humping her brains out,” while he recovered from tripping.
Gottlieb was originally employed as a master chemist. But the mild-mannered meditator also had a covert killer side to him. Kinzer describes the Poisoner-in-Chief’s hand in the assassination of world leaders. Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai escaped one of Gottlieb’s plots with a last-minute change of plans. Gottlieb was put in charge of killing Cuban leader Fidel Castro with poison, both directly (cigars) and indirectly (causing his beard to fall out so he’d ‘lose face’ with his people). He was involved in the takedown of Congo Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, personally concocting a poison that “ if it didn’t kill Lumumba outright,” writes Kinzer, “would leave him so disfigured that he couldn’t possibly be a leader.” Lumumba managed to evade the poison, but was eventually assassinated by the more traditional firing squad.
And the craziest characters kept joining his subprojects. At McGill University in Montreal, Dr. James Hebb studied “the isolation technique [that] could break any man, no matter how intelligent or strong-willed.” In another subproject he brought Ira Feldman, a master of “old-fashioned” interrogation techniques who observed, “If it was a girl, you put her tits in a drawer and slammed the drawer [and if] it was a guy, you took his cock and you hit it with a hammer. And they would talk to you. Now, with these drugs, you could get information without having to abuse people.” Feldman was welcomed with open arms.
In New York, John Mulholland, a professional magician who’d worked with Houdini, joined MK-Ultra subproject 4, taught sleight of hand and misdirection to the CIA, and even developed a manual for them, The Official CIA Manual of Trickery and Deception. The crazies and subprojects of MK-ULTRA just kept piling up. Under Subprojects 9 and 26, Gottlieb studied ways that “various depressant drugs” can shake a person’s psyche…Subproject 28 was to test “depressants” ..Subproject 47 would “screen and evaluate hallucinogens,” Subproject 124 tested whether inhaling carbon dioxide could lead people into a trance-like state, and Subproject 140 tested the psychoactive effects of “thyroid-related hormones.”
It wasn’t until Dr. Harold Wollf came along in 1954 that CIA methods took a turn toward the ‘ways and means’ we wring our hands over today. Wollf had treated Dulles’s son – a soldier who’d suffered a significant shrapnel injury to his brain. “Wolff shared Dulles’s fascination with the idea of mind control,” writes Kinzer. Wollf headed up the Society for the Investigation of Human Ecology. He proposed placing subjects in inescapable situations that eroded their psyches to the point where, desperate to escape,
doctors could “create psychological reactions within them.”…to test “special methods of interrogation, including “threats, coercion, imprisonment, isolation, deprivation, humiliation, torture, ‘brainwashing,’ ‘black psychiatry, ’hypnosis, and combinations of these with or without chemical agents.
Hello, Gitmo. Hello, Abu Ghraib.
Gottlieb’s reputation for dark art intrigues was at its height in 1953 when CIA operative, Frank Olson, suffering from acute anxiety and having reportedly confided to a colleague that “he’d made a big mistake” being part of MK-ULTRA, either fell or dove from the 10th floor of the Statler Hotel in New York. MK-ULTRA almost went down with Olson. Was he heave-hoed out the window by CIA bouncers, or did he somehow somnambulate through a closed curtain and plate glass window? It was a mystery that investigative journalist Sy Hersh looked in to and opined that, based upon uncorroborated information he’d been made privy to, Olson was murdered. A 2017 six-part Netflix series — Wormwood — was produced and does an excellent job of recreating the vibe of the 50s and the somewhat hallucinogenic event.
In the end, as unfriendly changes and unwanted scrutiny took place at the CIA in the wake of changing times, Gottlieb retired. And he and his wife travelled by freighter to India where they volunteered at a leper’s colony. Did he spend much time, in retirement, recalling his Jewish roots? Maybe thinking, there but for the grace of God (his name suggests ‘love of God’) might my Hungarian Jewish parents have gone — and me with them — into some death camp, where I might have been ‘done’ by Nazis in ways very similar to the methods I myself employed? We’ll never know. Even the Congressional hearings that called him back from India to account for his MK-ULTRA doings don’t suggest much rueful ruminations. He was essentially a Holocaust Denying Jew. Netanyahu would have called him “a self-loathing Jew,” then hired him to mow lawns, in new ways, on the West Bank, returning at night to his leafy kibbutz.
So, what’s the future of mind control? Kinzer doesn’t speculate much. But it’s clear, without a lot of thinking, that the more we humans become addicted to the honey of the Internet’s hive mindedness, we become more vulnerable. Edward Snowden has already warned about the mere collection of dossiers (Permanent Records) on every person connected. But there is also the risk of ‘contagions’ brought on by manipulations of algorithms and newsfeeds. Think of the online white blood cell mobbing of Joseph Kony back in 2012 that created a massive fever to capture the black cancerous leader of child soldiers, only for the fervor to die suddenly, when it was discovered he hadn’t been in the country of intended capture — for years.
Gottlieb is said to have abandoned his pursuit of the Grail for mind control in the end. But there is no question that the dark Quest to control minds is still active, as there are still Rove-Cheney-Bush type people out there who believe, as Allen Dulles did, that “Any nation that discovered ways to manipulate the human psyche…could rule the world.” And, ‘we are an Empire now’.
We are in the middle of a new brain warfare, as Kinzer puts it, without knowing it, because these manipulations and brain hacks are kept from us. As Kinzer suggests,
The target of this warfare is the minds of men on a collective and on an individual basis. Its aim is to condition the mind so that it no longer reacts on a free will or rational basis, but a response to impulses implanted from outside … it is proving malleable in the hands of sinister men.
We are the “black sites” of future interrogations, by machine-like men, who, if they have their way, will not be out to make AI androids of the future more human, but, rather, humans more machine-like. It might be as simple as a tiny gizmo implanted in the brain to take the free will away and leave us open to the programming of remote, sinister forces.
Think about it.
The Terror Report You Weren’t Meant to See
By John Kendall Hawkins
“If it works, why do you need to do it 183 times?”
- Senator Dianne Feinstein
In 1953, they deposed Iran’s democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Mossadiq, with the help of the British. In the 60s, they were there at the Gulf of Tonkin, false flagging the North Vietnamese; and there pushing exiles onto the shores of the Bay of Pigs, shouting “Cuba Si, Castro No.” In the 60s and 70s, they spied on American activists, violating the Agency’s charter against domestic surveillance, and in 1975 were chastised by Frank Church’s committee. They fomented regime changes in Central America throughout the 80s, leading to Irangate and the Contra-Sandinista standoff. The Gulf War, economic sabotage, MK-ULTRA, intellectual property theft, 70 years of war with Russia (with two-way electoral interference), and spook Duane Clarridge, who helped bring down Chile’s Allende, telling us to “lump it.”
On and on the scofflaws went. Even when they were running drugs, murdering people, or doing porn films with Dolly Treason, nothing seemed to stop them or slow them down. By the time the 80s rolled around I was steeped in Existentialism and throwing away what was left of my faith — attending drive-in movies, with double-bills like: The Passover Plot, followed by Executive Action. You felt like you were sitting in the dark among moral desperados, glocks to their own heads, as, first, Jesus got double-crossed by post-modernism and then Democracy went limp, like a blow-up doll.
And then, in November 1986, while looking for my Lo and Behold, as Bobby Dylan would say, Abbie Hoffman, all grizzled from his underground years, arose like a Finger from the grave, and joined Amy Carter, and 13 others, to fight the CIA recruitment effort at UMass-Amherst, my alma mater. They staged a sit-in and/or blocked the police bus taking protesters away after being arrested for trespassing and disorderly conduct — misdemeanors. Five months later, in April 1987, Abbie, reunited with lawyer Leonard Weinglass from his Chicago 8 days, successfully employed the “necessity defense,” and paraded before the jury such luminaries as Howard Zinn, Daniel Ellsberg, Amy Carter and Abbie Hoffman, who testified about the moral need to protest against the CIA’s felonious actions abroad.
But, according to the now-defunct Boston Phoenix, the stars of the show were former Contra Edgar Chamorro, who enumerated the Agency’s terror tactics, handing out Psychological Operations, a how-to on how to scare the shit out of ordinary people to gain their “respect” and cooperation. The Contras were told to “create martyrs of our own followers, someone who is well-liked that gets killed in a way that looks like the government did it.” Contra what? Contra anything you please.
Chamorro was followed on the stand by CIA tell-aller (in retirement) Ralph McGehee — who catalogued his personal experiences of the Agency’s atrocities, including torture, rape, murder, disinformation, propaganda, and general deceit. The gloves were off — way off — long before the aftermath of 9/11. The Phoenix describes McGehee’s testimony: “[He] told a CIA joke comparing the Agency’s treatment of Congress to mushrooms. ‘You’re kept in the dark and you’re fed manure,’ he said.” The arrogance and disdain are trademarks — sentiments echoed in Snowden’s memoir, Permanent Record, when he describes how intel operatives saw themselves, a generation later as: “a hermetic power-mad cabal that controlled the actions of America’s elected officials from shadowy subterranean cubicles.” In short, Clarridge-On-Line.
Then the 60s were all over again, the Finger wilted one last time. Abbie sank into a funk and let himself die in April 1989. Why? Who knows. But it may or may not be a coincidence that his death came just after GHW Bush became the first former CIA chief to be inaugurated as president. It must have depressed a lot of activists, when you think about it. I’m still depressed — and increasingly inactive.
The Gulf War followed shortly thereafter, when Sad-um Hussein rebuffed American efforts to make him their “little shoe shine boy” in the region. Other Arabs were offended; things started to happen; Khobar Towers was blown up, producing more than 500 US military casualties; bin Laden was credited with his first Tower take-down. Then, the shoes came back to haunt in 2008 when an Iraqi journalist, uttering epithets better left off family TV (something about Bush’s pet goat), bared his soles at GW Bush during a 2008 post-Shock and Awe Baghdad press conference. Americans took off their gloves; Iraqis took off their shoes; al-Qaeda became ISIS; now look at the world.
The Hell on Earth misery that the CIA served up for so many people overseas, according to the sworn testimony of Chamorro and McGehee, was just a warm-up for the Apocalyptic crusade that has taken out large swathes of the Middle East (and Afghanistan) since, and promises to take out more (Syria, Iran), since the Pearl Harbor-like event that was 9/11. Not only did Cheney try to take off his glove, but the revenge America has wreaked on Terror since has included not just the evil Arabs the CIA says are dashing all around the world wearing suicide vests and clutching children, in a mad dash effort to make Zionist Islam (go with it) seem as bad as — Communism!
The long established 9/11 narrative says that it was CIA head of Counter Terrorism Cofer Black’s dire warnings to Bush of an imminent attack by al-Qaeda that were ignored; he was put in charge thereafter of tracking down bin Laden; he set up the renditions and black sites and torture enhanced interrogation program that followed; he helped found the private CIA group, Blackwater, who are, essentially, a private deployable army ready to act without government oversight, but doing their bidding, like the homo contractus virus Snowden describes, from firsthand experience, in his memoir.
There has been plenty of blowback from the events of 9/11, but perhaps nothing was more controversial than the bear-hug embracing of enhanced interrogation, which, under the guise of righteous vengeance, has brought American consciousness over to the dark side wholesale. We opened Guantanamo Bay and falsely imprisoned and interrogated many people for years having no links to terrorism. We’ve graphically degraded our humanity, and that of others, at Abu Ghraib. We’ve corrupted psychology by trying to spin enhanced interrogation as a scientifically valid method. We’ve allowed the CIA to cover it all up, by destroying videos of the ordeals that would have put the lie to science.
Luckily, it has turned stomachs within the ranks of the CIA. Analyst John Kirikaou was the first to blow the whistle on the evil doings of his agency. In his now well-known 2007 interview with ABC newsman Brian Ross, he wrings hands on behalf of conflicted colleagues, which has resonance for torture-abhoring viewers. He describes how presumed conspirator of 9/11 events Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times, admits he came to see it as not enhanced interrogation but torture, but that it was “necessary” to extract valuable information, and that old “rapport” methods wouldn’t work. Said Kirikaou, “They hate us more than they love life,” and would never give in. Kirikaou told Ross enhanced interrogation worked. Tapes of Zubaydah’s ordeal were illegally destroyed.
Kirikaou’s seeming equivocation — that the enhanced interrogation program worked — flies in the face of the findings by the Senate Intelligence Committee chaired by Dianne Feinstein , which concluded in 2014 that the CIA’s much-ballyhooed enhanced interrogation methods did not work — at all. The most valuable information that may have come from the Zubaydah waterboarding is the purported poetry that Z. wrote to his interrogator’s wife.
Torture by any other name is the subject of the newly-released film, The Report. The film recounts the aftermath of 9/11 and the mobilization of Cofer Black’s gloveless forces as they spread around the globe looking for “terrorists” to round up and/or identify for entry in the disposition matrix that could lead to later CIA drone strikes during the Obama administration. In one scene, Black (played by Ian Blackman) utters his famous quip the scope of American vengeance, “We will not stop until flies are walking across their eyeballs.” And then the superheroes are on their way.
The Report opens by showing how the so-called enhanced interrogation program was put together, and introduced to CIA officers, by contractors. Two psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, using powerpoint slides and without previous interrogation experience, bring “learned helplessness” to the table, achieved, they claim, by techniques including sleep deprivation, stress positions, loud and long noise, insects, and waterboarding, sounding like salesmen for Orwell’s Room 101 Experience (not to be confused with the Jimi Hendrix experience).
Douglas Hodge, who was recently played the evil proprietor of the Black Museum (where torture is also the principal focus) in a Black Mirror episode, is especially effective as sick psychologist James Mitchell. The learned helplessness that Mitchell touts to officers, based on experiments torturing dogs, draws skepticism from the gitmo. Mitchell smiles on, and as he exhausts his techniques, none of them working. He settles on mostly waterboarding, and is involved in the blubbooling of Khaled Sheik Mohammed, the preferred mastermind of 9/11, who is “drowned” 183 times. Desperation sets in as the CIA realizes loud and clear that “enhanced interrogation is only legal if it works.” Despite Kirikiaou’s odd assertion that it worked (Ross interview p.16), the facts speak otherwise.
The money spent on “learned helplessness” amounted to $81 million, plus another $5m as a defense fund, should the psychologists be sued. The program was originally contracted for $181 million, but was terminated due to ineffectiveness. As noted earlier, the CIA videotaped the interrogations and then, when it was clear they were to become the center of inquiry, destroyed them. As with Snowden, it’s almost as if a contractor was brought in to provide plausible deniability should something (inevitably) go wrong, although this angle is not explored in the film. But what’s actually surprising is that, given what Chamorro and McGehee expounded upon about CIA techniques (back when torture was called torture), the CIA ever fell for the crazy-eyed psychologists’ proposed shtick to begin with.
Mitchell and Jessen were never going to be tried and held accountable, because the CIA would claim “national security” interests and close the case down. We know this because that’s what they did to the investigation into the destruction of the interrogation tapes — they quashed the report. And they were determined to do the same to Feinstein’s report on enhanced interrogation techniques — and how they miserably failed. And, consequently, were illegal. The CIA had argued that EIT was the only means to obtain time-critical information from detainees, and wanted to claim, desperate to demonstrate its legality, that countless attacks had been averted thanks to information extracted by EIT. Feinstein (played by Annette Bening) called it all a lie, pissing off John Brennan, who tried to sabotage the Report.
Monk veteran Ted Levine (who is wonderfully remembered for his role as Captain Stottlemeyer in an episode where he shows us how to interrogate a suspect with a potentially smoking gun) does a bang-up job playing John Brennan. Obama’s CIA chief tries to undermine Dan Jones (played by Adam Driver), lead investigator for Feinstein’s committee — and at one point Jones is confronted with imminent criminal action against him when it’s discovered that he has on his computer a classified document. This stratagem backfires and Feinstein realizes that the CIA has hacked into the Committee’s computers (and, later, break into a Committee office, recalling Watergate) in a clear breach of the separation of powers, criminal B&E, and cover-up, for starters. Definitely impeachable offenses.
One has to presume that a breach that serious would have had the approval of President Obama. Since Obama curtailed the EIT shortly after taking office, one wonders what reason he would have had for covering the back of George W. Bush. Maybe it’s because Obama continued the enhancements in the War against Terror in other ways — drones. Instead of rounding up suspected terrorists and housing them in uncomfortable controversial facilities that create a legal and moral crisis for an administration, just pick a kill out of a disposition matrix and joystick command the murder remotely. Just as a lot people never belonged at Gitmo, so, too, a lot of innocent people have been killed because a baddie was in their midst.
The Report closes out on a poignant note, Senator John McCain’s address to Congress following the release of Feinstein’s report. With eloquence and insight, the former POW, and the only Republican who stood by Feinstein’s investigation, reminds Congress and his fellow Americans of their core values — the one’s worth fighting and dying for. Here is his December 9, 2014 speech.
The Report, directed by Scott Burns, is good story-telling. Other than Driver, Bening, Levine, and Hodge, the film’s other stars include John Hamm, Maura Tierney, and Tim Blake Nelson. It appears that for many of the actors it was a virtual gift to the public, as last minute cuts to the budget saw next-to-nothing wages paid to the actors. Director Burns told Vanity Fair, “[The Report]went from having a 50-day schedule to a 26-day schedule, and its $18 million budget was slashed to $8 million…getting Hollywood to get behind a movie like this was difficult.” Like the other recently released film about Deep State corruption, Official Secrets, a film about whistleblowing at the GCHQ (although, ultimately, it’s a whistleblow on the NSA’s role in getting America into Iraq in 2003), The Report takes some of the edge off of one’s cynicism.
Is it enough? Not with Trump, a vocal proponent of torture (not enhanced interrogation) at the helm of the leaky ship of state, and ultimately in charge of the CIA and their policies. But it is a start.
More information on the CIA’s doings over the years can be found in William Blum’s Killing Hope. Here are some chapter samples from Blum’s website.
by John Kendall Hawkins
“He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster; when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.”
- Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
“Are you sure that you can skin griz?
– line from film Jeremiah Johnson
Edward Snowden’s newly-released memoir, Permanent Record, is a timely and welcome entry into the current clown show debate on whistleblowing that has filled the Big Tent in Washington with hot air, old farts, and effete lions sitting around eating bon-bons and reading Sartre’s Being and Nothingness — in French. Because, among other things, Snowden’s book strives to ignite an albeit self-serving ‘national conversation’ on whistle-blowing, how it differs from mere leaking, and why he qualifies for the protections afforded those who cop a whistle against government abuses. Indeed, not only is he arguing his own patriotic virtues, but he is calling on government-embedded “geeks,” like himself, to wake from their slogmatic dumber and pull a BogieBugle for the team. You want some liberty — or don’t you?
Snowden insists there’s a serious distinction between a whistleblower and a leaker. “A ‘whistleblower’ … is a person who through hard experience has concluded that their life inside an institution has become incompatible with the principles developed in…the greater society outside it, to which that institution should be accountable.” Snowden has often referred to Daniel Ellsberg, distributor of the Pentagon Papers, as a model for the type. And he sees himself in this vein. He compares this to leaking, which refers to “acts of disclosure done not out of public interest but out of self-interest, or in pursuit of institutional or political aims.” As Liberty might inquire, a la Bobby Dylan, “Are you willing to risk it all or is your love in vain?”
By Snowden’s rule, the recent anonymous hand-ringing CIA figure who dobbed Trump in to Congress is — well — still working and presumably, being anonymous, available for future leaks. He sounds more akin to what Snowden describes in the book as a politically-motivated ‘conscience’. These kinds of leakers tend to be practicing tradecraft (Snowden knows; he worked for the CIA), and can be likened to what Obama did — coyly denying the existence of drone warfare, while spending Terror Tuesdays personally selecting a new joker from his “disposition matrix” card deck to ‘take out’.
Writes Snowden, “By breathlessly publicizing its drone attack on al-Aulaqi to the Washington Post and the New York Times, the Obama administration was tacitly admitting the existence of the CIA’s drone program and its “disposition matrix,” or kill list, both of which are officially top secret. Additionally, the government was implicitly confirming that it engaged not just in targeted assassinations, but in targeted assassinations of American citizens.” Where was the whistleblower for that? Snowden seems to wonder. This is the lawlessness he just couldn’t hack any more.
But Permanent Record is far more than simply a personal appeal to be regarded as a hero in the public’s eye; it is a continuation of his alarm ‘call to arms’ against the serious “criminal behavior” of the US government and the catastrophic threat to democracy and privacy that its intentional actions have wrought with the rise of the surveillance state out of the ashes of 9/11.
To recap what’s at stake, according to Snowden: The American government claims ownership of the Internet. All of it. In America. In Europe. In Asia. And some day, inshallah, on Mars. They haven’t ‘officially’ announced it, but that’s how they’ve decided to proceed. They invented it. They developed its working protocols and technologies. They know more and more people will rely on access to it religiously (45% online now, according to Snowden), and they intend to keep people hooked on the sugar for life. First mass surveillance, then mass control. It’s monetized; it’s militarized; it’s locked and loaded with a full metal jacket of jingly algorithms. Not a gift to the world at all, like, say, America’s Deluxe Democracy for The Betterment of Mankind™.
Such a “Frankenstein” system is a long way from the Internet Eden Snowden claims we started out with. Far from merely describing a government on a temporary, and unconscious, surveillance sugar high, Snowden makes sure we understand to our roots that it’s much worse than that. “The president’s office, through the Justice Department,” he notes, “had committed the original sin of secretly issuing directives that authorized mass surveillance in the wake of 9/11.” Once that 9/11 serpent offered the US government that Apple of the Eyes, there was no turning back.
Snowden contends that we’re handing over more and more data, more of our lives, to the control of these unknown demigods in the clouds of Cyberspace. Who are they? Fantasists — all dem Deep State geeks, like Snowden, before he broke good, and Bush and Cheney, and Rove, saying shit like,
“We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
But they’re not at liberty to talk about it.
Snowden grew up reading Aesop’s Fables and Bulfinch’s Mythology and so is steeped in the stuff of heroes and gods and chimaera, parables and symbolism, deus ex machina, and the whole Lord of the Flies thing about wanton gods. But you can tell there’s a certain class of sleazester that grubs its way into national politics alluding to the glories of our shared classical Greco-Roman past (without which we Exceptionals would be nothing), dropping names and taking names, set on seeming and beaming. Types that make a more humble man, standing across the room seeing such seeming, cold-cock his fist as an instinct.
This God stuff really pisses Snowden off. You can tell by the way he introduces legends and mythology to the narrative, like he’s trying to speak their Dungeons and Terrorists language on some kind subtextual level that has sadistic overtones. My favorite bit comes when he comes up with a kind of origin story for his surname. He relates the tale of Rhitta Gawr, monster king of Wales, who took on and killed every king around him, cutting off their beards before he cut off their heads, and making a hair suit out of the scalpings. “Enraged at this hubris,” writes Snowden, “Arthur set off for Rhitta Gawr,” they fought and Arthur split Gawr in half with a sword on a mountain called …Snaw Dun….”
Rhitta Gawr would seem to represent American imperialism, and King Arthur would be the hubris-sapping champion of virtue and noble causes. Snowden is no Arthur, but he is invoking his spirit, his courage, his determination to slay tyranny, while at the same time making it clear he’s just an ordinary patriot. In fact, Snowden goes through some pains to recount his Mayflower heritage, family military history, and civil service roots. Sometimes he goes too far in the telling, as when he recounts the demise of his paternal ancestor who died at the hands of the British during the Revolution. He adds, seemingly gratuitously, “(Legend has it that they killed their POWs by forcing them to eat gruel laced with ground glass.)” Funny way to recall a relative’s death.
Speaking of family history, his most bizarre, and perhaps most revealing, tidbit of personal history is his mention of the founding of Fort Meade, Maryland, the location of NSA headquarters. The land on which the fort is built was once owned by Snowden ancestors. It was a plantation, but they “abolished their family’s practice of slavery, freeing their two hundred African slaves nearly a full century before the Civil War.” But there’s some strange, residual resentment. Snowden claims that the plantation was “expropriated” by the federal government to house Civil War soldiers. Head-spinning stuff.
Snowden emphasizes throughout his memoir that the terrorist-seeking, “surveillance capitalist” state is striving to have a permanent record of every human on the planet. All information going back perhaps even to birth — every phone call, email, text message, every trip taken, every purchase, medical data, service records, and a digital link to everyone you know. A permanent record without probable cause, waiting for you to be accused of a crime to be named later.
Snowden worked in a system in which, “[E]veryone’s information was being collected, which was tantamount to a government threat: If you ever get out of line, we’ll use your private life against you.” The government as goombah. A dystopia similar to the film Minority Report, but with algorithms, machine thoughts, replacing pre-cogs, cutting out the middle-seer.
Snowden spends considerable time reiterating his revelations of the specific secret government surveillance programs he shared with journalists beginning in 2013. He had originally intended to contact the New York Times, he writes, but remembered how they had quashed James Risen and Eric Lichtblau’s important piece on the Bush administration’s illegal wireless surveillance of Americans (revealed later by Snowden as NSA’s StellarWind program) that “well might have changed the course of the 2004 election” had it run. The story ran more than a year later to shrugs.
Instead, a second Bush/Cheney term allowed the NSA and CIA to expand their global surveillance programs. Snowden revealed further evidence of extra-Constitutional data-gathering. He writes:
“PRISM enabled the NSA to routinely collect data from Microsoft, Yahoo!,Google, Facebook, Paltalk, YouTube, Skype, AOL, and Apple, including email, photos, video and audio chats, Web-browsing content, search engine queries, and all other data stored on their clouds, transforming the companies into witting co-conspirators.”
These criminal co-conspirators, above the law themselves, were treating everyone else as potential terrorists, sleeping cells of personality disorder that could erupt at any moment and reveal themselves by “keyword” Google searches for trouble, such as “Mr. Google, what ever happened to the photo and DNA evidence of bin Laden’s Abbottabad execution?”
There were also a couple of monitor-level programs that were mind-boggling and disgusting, such as XKeyscore, “which is perhaps best understood as a search engine that lets an analyst search through all the records of your life.” Everything. Anybody. Anywhere. While you were getting over the shock of that, Snowden pointed to another salubrious practice — LOVEINT — “in which analysts used the agency’s programs to surveil their current and former lovers along with objects of more casual affection—reading their emails, listening in on their phone calls, and stalking them online.” Creepy, and probably rife, considering that no one’s likely to get prosecuted, “because you can’t exactly convict someone of abusing your secret system of mass surveillance if you refuse to admit the existence of the system itself.” Secret men’s business. High five!
Most everyone agrees that 9/11 was the catalyst for the political acceptance of mass surveillance. The pollies conned the People into buying into the “limited” and “temporary” need for security-enhancing privacy annihilation hastened the transformation from intensified vigilance to full-blown panopticon intrusiveness. Snowden sees two main causes: one, the transfer of paper data to digital data, stored online; and, two, contracting. To get around agency hiring limits set by Congress, contractors, not counted as employees, were hired. Snowden calls them Homo Contractus. He was one. Said to be working for, say, Dell computers, but actually doing the work of the NSA or CIA.
Homo Contractus has become an evolving species of worker for the US government. It is perhaps the most dangerous development of all, given that such contractors are the eyes and ears of the surveillance machine. Suddenly, agency analysts go into early ‘retirement’, only to put up a quick WordPress business website and hang a shingle out as ‘consultants’, who then get re-hired by the system they retired from. When such consultants start working overseas, in places like the UAE, they are mercenaries who can hack away as they please. They bring their skill sets, toolsets, and target lists with them; the US government cannot stop them. It was no surprise to see The Intercept, a publication for whistleblowing revelations, being hacked from the UAE.
Permanent Record is an excellent read. There is a sub-text to the narrative that makes you wonder whether he is pulling your leg at times. And a few seemingly contrived anecdotes, such as the tiny play child Snowden has with mom about the need for taxes; another childhood exchange with mom where she explains the immorality of opening his sister’s mail; and, the chapter, “From the Diaries of Lindsay Mills,” which are, ostensibly, entries from his girlfriend’s (now his wife) diary. I was surprised that this chapter didn’t qualify her for a byline. But also, the section was so finely manicured that it felt like an inauthentic voice. In a novel that’s okay.
I have questions. Like why the push to get people to use the Tor Project? Snowden says that setting up a Tor server can help others in highly controlled societies (he cites Iran) reach out beyond their cyberwall. But the safety of Tor use was debunked years ago, when it was revealed US spooks had cracked its encryption and were on to users setting up bridge servers. But a bigger mystery to me was the inclusion of a reference to the bin Laden execution of 2011: “a dialysis patient shot point-blank in the embrace of his multiple wives in their lavish compound.” By all other reports, bin Laden was shot dead from the stairwell, there were no “multiple wives” embracing him, and the compound was anything but “lavish.”
Responses to what Snowden did in 2013 seem to locate his actions somewhere between heroic and traitorous. One political analyst, however, believes he’s beyond such easy good or evil. David P. Fidler, editor of The Snowden Reader, writes in his introduction to the volume that Snowden’s actions “disrupted the trajectory of political affairs and forced democratic societies to reconsider fundamental questions, the answers to which help define the quality of the democratic experience.” This is, of course, vague, and maybe entirely unhelpful, but does give an idea of his reception of the intellectuals who may influence his fate, should he ever return to America.
The picture Snowden paints in Permanent Record is so bleak and — like he alludes to — such a fall from more relatively edenic times that there seems little hope. However, he does, like Julian Assange, assert that one place to start fighting back is for people to implement encryption — sealing their documents and using a safe VPN. Snowden notes, with hope, “The year 2016 was a landmark in tech history, the first year since the invention of the Internet that more Web traffic was encrypted than unencrypted.” In addition, many other people, like Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, are pushing for the adoption of John Perry Barlow’s “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.” Meh. But the truth is, more radical actions may be required.
Personally, I believe we need a more benign, colossal catastrophe. For instance, I was reading the other day about the chances of Earth being spit in the eye by a giant hot loogie from the Sun. I read:
“In today’s electrically dependent modern world, a similar scale solar storm could have catastrophic consequences. Auroras damage electrical power grids and may contribute to the erosion of oil and gas pipelines. They can disrupt GPS satellites and disturb or even completely black out radio communication on Earth.”
Such damage, if it lasted long enough, might just be the best goddamned thing to happen to this planet in a long time. We’d talk more, face to face.
To the reader: While I am not the only one to express concern for Greenwald’s jump to independence at The Intercept, I am, as far as I know, the only one to tackle the Amazon-Greenwald special offer and its meaning for those looking to Greenwald as a data privacy champion. I did try to get this run elsewhere at various venues a few months back, for certainly it is timely, important and well-written. However, I got no takers. Greenwald, since the Snowden revelations, is now another sacrosanct figure in the mediasphere.
Generally speaking, I regard my approach to unravelling the vast complexities of reality (if there even is such a thing) as intrepid and, for the most part, fearless. But there are two ideological holy lands that I enter clutching my commentary with some degree of fear and trembling.
The first is Israel, the sense of bracing for the worst reactionary outbursts whenever I gather the largely pointless courage to criticize Israeli policies, especially those designed and implemented by the radical Zionists who dominate decision-making there, such as with the relentless and merciless settlement expansions and the genocidal war criminality. You quickly learn that the IDF does not merely physically invade other states, but also has Minuteman-like cyber reactionaries at the ready who pounce on any and all criticism of their ways and means.
The second tread-lightly zone is in the Untamed Territory that is the commentary section of Glenn Greenwald’s blog. Dissenters know all too well what will happen if they too tightly question a claim or fail to exhibit the appropriate level of hagiographical devotion. Like some of the sceptical animals with questions for Napoleon in Orwell’s Animal Farm, you find you have to get through the dogs first, always mindful of what happened to that working class hero, Boxer, who, you might say, was the glue of the community. The irony is, and the cult of Greenwald sure does like its irony feeds, you can look left at the righty wingnuts of Zion, and then right at the lefty flywheels of Sion, and totally not know the difference.
It’s all out of the bag now, as they say and say: America tortures. Of course, this news has been evident for quite some time. Who was in doubt of the implications lurking in Dick Cheney’s 2001 mumble-snark, “Time to take the gloves off”? In any case, in 2011, OR Books released The Torture Report, which details the deranged doings at Guantanamo, where hundreds of humans have been detained without trial for many years now.
And a couple of years ago, ex-CIA interrogator John Kiriakou belatedly blew the whistle on the Agency, at one point relating how one terrorist suspect was waterboarded so thoroughly that he ended up writing poems to the wife of his tormentor. “They hate us more than they love life,” quoth Kiriakou, and there can be no doubt why – our freedoms – or, at least, our license. (Oops, shouldn’t have said that.)
Lest we remember …
Perusing the Prague Post‘s headlines the other day, I was darkly amused by the Czech Republic’s growing pariah status vis-à-vis the United States. In the “Bloom wears off Czech-US relations” piece, there was expressed by US officials deep imperial disappointment at the Republic’s refusal to accept an anti-nuclear weapon battery just outside Prague, with the requisite stationing of US occupying forces to safeguard it, of course. How could any nation refuse to garrison an exceptional and indispensable soldier from Freedonia? Think of it.
by Peter Carey
Available from Penguin and online retailers
Anyway, the reason for my amusement was because, at the time, I was reading Peter Carey’s new novel, Amnesia, and key to the story is what happens when a client nation state falls out of favor with Uncle Sam: change comes suddenly and shockingly. As Duane Clarridge, the CIA meat cleaver who helped oversee the Allende ouster in Chile 1973, would say, “We’re not going to put up with any nonsense.”
Ordinarily, the Amazon–Hachette battle over revenue streams is not something I would take much interest in: no matter how the fight is framed by the mainstream media, the fact remains the bottom line is all that counts for these corporate entities. But I have been drawn into the fray by happenstance, having recently received my younger brother’s memoirs of his glorious bank-robbing years, along with a request for me to edit the manuscript and see to its publication. As my brother is not a well-known figure, except in his own outlaw circles, it was clear that self-publishing was the most viable avenue to travel, and that Amazon was the best option for uploading and marketing his book. Or so I then thought.
Ordinarily, the Amazon-Hachette battle over revenue streams is not something I would take much interest in, because no matter how the fight is framed by the mainstream media the fact remains the bottom line is all that counts for these corporate entities. But I have been drawn into the fray by happenstance, having recently received from my younger brother his memoirs of his glorious bank-robbing years, along with a request for me to edit the manuscript and see to its publication. As my brother is not a well-known figure, except in his own outlaw circles, it was clear that self-publishing was the most viable avenue to travel, and that, as far as I then knew, Amazon was the best option for uploading and marketing his book.
I was willing to employ Amazon’s services for my brother’s sake (he’s somewhat apolitical), but I didn’t like knowing I had so little choice. Just a couple of months ago I had cancelled my Amazon account – a feat which took me almost a week to complete, as the cancel function is nearly impossible to locate at the Amazon site and one is required to submit time-consuming requests, and hit special buttons, etc – because I was fed up with the Amazon attitude. I mean, there is abundant reason to shy away from the book-selling collossus, starting with the horror stories surrounding their workplace practices; their nose-tweaking insolence and just plain silliness regarding the use of drones to deliver books; their collaboration with the CIA in building a database – after the Snowden revelations; the creepy privacy intrusions of their algorithms; the nuissance DRM locks they place on e-books to prevent copying and conversion to other reading formats; the shock revelation that you are, in essence, not purchasing, but renting, a book from Amazon, which you may discover the hard way after you cancel your account. And I personally know an on-line entrepreneur from Perth who has spent upwards of $250,000 to defend against Amazon’s hostile attempted hijacking of her domain name.
So if corporations are now people, Amazon can seem to be what you might call a thug.
But the question remains, in this battle with the major publisher, Hachette, what is the battle about, and are their any victors other than the bottom-liners? Do readers benefit? Will writers be better off when all is said and said and said?
On the surface the issue seems fairly clear-cut. Hachette, like all the other hard copy publishers, wants to sell their e-books at a substantially higher rate — $14 –$ 20 a pop – than Amazon’s set policy price of $10. Hachette justifies its higher rates by pointing to its substantial overhead and to costs associated with discovering and promoting new writers. The extra revenue is, all in all, in support of the publishing industry’s so-called ‘ecosystem’ of manufacturing and distribution. Hachette does not deny that e-books themselves have relatively very little production costs compared to hard copy books, they just see the extra funds generated by inflated pricing as a form of subsidization of the corporate entity.
But this seems to be a real sticking point for Amazon. Aside from the fact that they don’t really give a shit about the woes of an anachronistic publishing industry who they see as competitors anyway, Amazon points to stats that seem to support their argument that lower prices are better and that higher pricing is actually counter-productive. For instance, Amazon told the bookseller.com, an industry newsletter,
We’ve quantified the price elasticity of e-books from repeated
measurements across many titles. For every copy an e-book
would sell at $14.99, it would sell 1.74 copies if priced at $9.99.
So, for example, if customers would buy 100,000 copies of a
particular e-book at $14.99, then customers would buy 174,000
copies of that same e-book at $9.99.
Thus, according to this measurement, everyone wins, because more volume means more revenue generated for Amazon, the publishers and their authors. And it is easy to see how more fluidity among e-book sales would create a ripple-on effect in the sale of hard copy as well, since there would be more familiarity with the works out there. Hachette, or any other publisher, really cannot argue this point.
But here’s the thing. The book publishing industry has always been different than other corporate enterprises, in that there has never been an expectation of high profit yields, and many would argue that industry is still largely devoted to the continued dissemination of culture and that it implicitly pushes the meme: Books are important. It is this cultural aspect, the protective layer for art and culture, even amidst business principles, that Hachette uses to bolster its claim to keeping its eco-system intact in order to continue delivering that Greater Good.
However, people like bestselling author Richard Russo, who also heads the Author’s Guild, whose job it is to protect the interests of writers, worries that Amazon, though seeming to offer good deals to readers and writers alike, has no interest in supporting the culture that is the backbone of the publishing industry. Says Russo,
We want Jeff Bezos to say, “We share your beliefs, we’re all
in this together.” Yet even that simple statement—which
would mean so much—hasn’t come. We’ve heard nothing.
But the shocking fact is, Amazon doesn’t necessarily care any more about the books it sells than any of its other purchaseable commodities. Why would it, asks Jason Diamond of Flavorwire, “when you consider that books don’t even make up ten percent of Amazon’s $75 billion in total yearly revenue.” The reality is that Amazon is more closely related to what eBay does than what book publishers do.
In the end, it is the projection of attitude that most offends. When Amazon released an app that allowed consumers to go into a local bookseller’s shop and read the barcode
off shelved books and compare to Amazon prices, many were deeply offended by the underlying message of this tactic. As the New York Times weighed in, the battle with Hachette has led Amazon to engage in behavior that engages it critics’ worst suspicions:
Now Amazon is raising prices, removing ordering buttons,
lengthening shipping times and monkeying with
recommendation algorithms. Do these sound like the moves
of a man who cares about customers above all else?
No, it sure doesn’t. And since those delays and tactics slow sales and turn off readers, they hurt writers as well. Even my brother is offended by these predations and wants to take his memoirs elsewhere. Luckily, there are alternatives, like draft2digital and ganxy, where he can flout his comparably honorable days of fleecing the banks.