Mark Ames

The Anonymous Blacklist Promoted by the Washington Post Has Apparent Ties to Ukrainian Fascism and CIA Spying

Last month, the Washington Post gave a glowing front-page boost to an anonymous online blacklist of hundreds of American websites, from marginal conspiracy sites to flagship libertarian and progressive publications. As Max Blumenthal reported for AlterNet, the anonymous website argued that all of them should be investigated by the federal government and potentially prosecuted under the Espionage Act as Russian spies, for wittingly or unwittingly spreading Russian propaganda.

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How Ayn Rand Became a Big Admirer of Serial Killer

There's something deeply unsettling about living in a country where millions of people froth at the mouth at the idea of giving health care to the tens of millions of Americans who don't have it, or who take pleasure at the thought of privatizing and slashing bedrock social programs like Social Security or Medicare. It might not be so hard to stomach if other Western countries also had a large, vocal chunk of the population that thought like this, but the U.S. is seemingly the only place where right-wing elites can openly share their distaste for the working poor. Where do they find their philosophical justification for this kind of attitude?

It turns out, you can trace much of this thinking back to Ayn Rand, a popular cult-philosopher who exerts a huge influence over much of the right-wing and libertarian crowd, but whose influence is only starting to spread out of the U.S.

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The True History of Libertarianism in America: A Phony Ideology to Promote a Corporate Agenda

This is an adapted version of an article that first appeared on NSFWCORP. Published daily online and monthly in print, NSFWCORP is The Future of Journalism (With Jokes). For more features, or to subscribe, click here.

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Meet Former GOP Public Relations Flak Radley Balko, Now a Libertarian Crusader Against Police Militarization

This article first appeared on NSFWCORP. Published daily online and monthly in print, NSFWCORP is The Future of Journalism (With Jokes). For more features,  or to subscribe, click here. 

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The True History of Libertarianism in America: A Phony Ideology to Promote a Corporate Agenda

This is an adapted version of an article that first appeared on NSFWCORP. Published daily online and monthly in print, NSFWCORP is The Future of Journalism (With Jokes). For more features, or to subscribe, click here.

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Amazing Investigation: How a Real Life James Bond Got Whacked by a Bag Lady Assassin

On the morning of Nov. 19, 1985, a wild-eyed and disheveled homeless woman entered the reception room at the legendary Wall Street firm of Deak-Perera. Carrying a backpack with an aluminum baseball bat sticking out of the top, her face partially hidden by shocks of greasy, gray-streaked hair falling out from under a wool cap, she demanded to speak with the firm’s 80-year-old founder and president, Nicholas Deak.

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Romney's Supposed 'Liberal Republican' Father Attacked Women's Rights Advocates as 'Moral Perverts'

While researching my ongoing series of articles for Not Safe for Work Corporation on the relationship between the Romney family and the Mormon Church and their reactionary politics, I came across a shocker.

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Has NPR's Adam Davidson Betrayed His Listeners? Serious Conflict of Interest Issues Exposed

Editor's Note: The following article from Yasha Levine and Mark Ames' SHAME Project has caught the attention of the New York Observer's Foster Kamer, who suggests that the authors have made a "compelling case" that the NPR programming Adam Davidson is associated with is "inherently conflicted."  What are the charges? Kamer summarizes:

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How the Koch Brothers Indoctrinate Their Employees with Right-Wing Anti-Worker Propaganda

The following article first appeared on the Nation.com. For more great content from the Nation, sign up for its email newsletters here.

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8 Signs Meg Whitman May Lack a Human Heart

Meg Whitman has always wanted to be Number One in her field. So although it must rankle Whitman that her $1.3 billion in wealth only ranks her as the fourth richest woman in California, when it comes to ranking “The Most Tight-Fisted Billionaire In The West,” no one comes close to Meg. For all her rosy campaign rhetoric about wanting to help California, unlike most billionaires in her category who go out of their way to make highly public donations to charities and the arts, Whitman has yet to perform a single significant charitable deed for the Golden State, or any state for that matter.

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The Really Creepy People Behind the Libertarian-Inspired Billionaire Sea Castles

What happens when Americans plunder America and leave it broken, destitute and seething mad? Where do these fabulously wealthy Americans go with their loot, if America isn't a safe, secure, or even desirable place to spend their riches? What if they lose faith in their gated communities, because those plush gated communities are surrounded by millions of pissed-off Americans stripped of their entitlements, and who now want in?

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Top Billionaire Hedge Funder Sees Himself As a Hyena Devouring Wildebeests

Ray Dalio is a billionaire hedge fund manager who makes more money in a single day than most Americans will earn in their entire lifetimes. That’s because hedge funds are the top of the Wall Street food chain — and Dalio runs the largest hedge fund of all, Bridgewater Associates. Life’s good at the top of this food chain: in 2008, a bad year for most Americans, Dalio took home $780 million. That same $780 million could have paid the salaries of about 20,000 teachers — and those 20,000 teachers could have taught about 400,000 American students (using author Les Leopold’s calculations). A lot of people might find this offensive and unjust, but not Dalio—he thinks this is all part of Nature’s Plan, and it just so happens that Nature favors the hedge fund managers:

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10 Ways the American Economy Is Built on Fraud

Here are 10 ways the American economy is built on fraud:

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Republicans at Highest Levels Really Want to Do Away with Democracy for All

While Tea Party movement followers ran around Nashville last week dressed up in their Paul Revere period costumes, blathering about their heroic struggle against Obama's Islamosocialist tyranny, the right-wing elite that nurtures them, and their paid libertarian ideologues, have been openly advocating the abolition of America's democracy in favor of a free-market junta, because, as they say over and over, voters cannot be trusted to rule themselves.

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Corruption Galore at the Washington Post

The May 7 edition of the Washington Post features one of the most poorly timed op-ed commentaries in recent memory. Carrying the harmless headline "A Friend to Georgia and Russia," it features the soothing bipartisan co-byline of Democratic Senator John Kerry and Republican Congressman David Dreier. The editorial argues that the best way to "reset" relations with Russia while at the same time support Georgia's "fledgling" democracy would be--are you ready?--to enact a free trade agreement with Georgia.

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America Watches the War in Georgia with Dumb Goggles

Five days after Georgia invaded and seized the breakaway separatist region of South Ossetia, sparking a larger-scale Russian invasion to drive Georgian forces back and punish their leaders, Russia surprised its Western detractors by calling a halt to the country's offensive. After all, the mainstream media, egged on by hawkish neocon pundits and their candidate John McCain, had everyone believing that Russia was hellbent on the full-scale annihilation and annexation of democratic Georgia.

But then came Tuesday's cease-fire announcement-and we're now forced to ask ourselves serious questions about the recent conflict: what really started it, how dangerous was it and what, with serious careful consideration, could be done to prevent it from turning into a worst-case scenario?

Up until now, this war was framed as a simple tale of Good Helpless Democratic Guy Georgia versus Bad Savage Fascist Guy Russia. In fact, it is far more complex than this, morally and historically. Then there are two concentric David and Goliath narratives here. The initial war pitted the Goliath Georgia-a nation of 4.4 million, with vastly superior numbers, equipment and training thanks to US and Israeli advisers-against David-Ossetia, with a population of between 50,000-70,000 and a local militia force that is barely battalion strength. Reports coming out of South Ossetia tell of Georgian rockets and artillery leveling every building in the capital city, Tskhinvali, and of Georgian troops lobbing grenades into bomb shelters and basements sheltering women and children. Although true casualty figures are hard to come by, reports that up to 2,000 Ossetians, mostly civilians, were killed are certainly believable, given the intensity of the initial Georgian bombardment, the wanton destruction of the city and surrounding regions and the generally savage nature of Caucasus warfare, a very personal game where old rules apply.

But you don't hear about this story from the Western media. Indeed, you hear little if anything about the Ossetians, who seem to hardly exist in the West's eyes, even though their grievance is the root cause of this war.

While Russia and America see the conflict in abstract terms about spheres of influence and protecting allies, for Ossetians, who still recall the centuries of massacres Georgians committed against them, it is highly personal. They will still recall the Georgian massacres in the early 1920s, when Georgia was briefly independent, which exterminated up to 8 percent of the Ossetian population. In 1990, when Georgia was again moving towards independence, the ultranationalist leader Zviad Gamsakhurdia abolished Ossetia's limited autonomy, leading to another Ossetian rebellion that was only quelled by a peace agreement signed by Georgia, Russia and the Ossetians. Gamsakhurdia was subsequently deposed, and Georgia's ethnic chauvinism was shelved until the rise of current president Mikhail Saakashvili in 2003.

Ossetians have traditionally relied on their powerful northern neighbor Russia for protection against Georgia. The Georgians, in turn, have tried to counter Russian hegemony, for which they are no match, by aligning closely with the United States, finding friendly ears among old cold warriors and Bush-era neocons.

When he first rose to prominence, the American-educated Saakashvili was often referred to as "Georgia's Vladimir Zhirinovsky"-the Russian ultranationalist firebrand who once promised to retake Alaska. Although Saakashvili was subsequently rebranded as a Euro-democrat, he promised to reunite Georgia and bring his separatist regions to heel, by force if necessary, whether the aggrieved ethnic groups liked it or not.

At the root of this conflict is a clash of two twentieth-century guiding principles in international relations. Georgia, backed by the West, is claiming its right as a sovereign nation to control the territory within its borders, a guiding principle since World War II. The Ossetians are claiming their right to self-determination, a guiding principle since World War I.

These two guiding concepts for international relations-national sovereignty and the right to self-determination-are locked in a zero-sum battle in Georgia. Sometimes, the West takes the side of national sovereignty, as it is in the current war; other times, it sides with self-determination and redrawing of national borders, such as with Kosovo.

In that 1999 war, the United States led a nearly three-month bombing campaign of Serbia in order to rescue a beleaguered minority, the Albanians, and carve out a new nation. Self-determination trumped national sovereignty, over the objections of Russia, China and numerous other countries.

Why, Russians and Ossetians (not to mention separatist Abkhazians in Georgia's western region) ask, should the same principle not be applied to them?

The answer is clear: because we say so. That sort of logic, in an era of colossal American decline and simultaneous Russian resurgence, no longer works on the field.

But sadly, this news hasn't been conveyed to neocon hawks like Robert Kagan or to John McCain, who seem to still be living in 2002, when American military power was seen as the answer to all the world's problems. There is even evidence to suggest that America encouraged Saakashvili to think he could solve this conflict by war. Ever since 2002, when American Green Berets dropped into Georgia to train its troops against phantom Al Qaeda cells, the Bush Administration has drawn the former Soviet nation closer into what appeared to be a military alliance, culminating in Georgia's 2,000-man contribution to the Iraq coalition forces (the third-largest contingent), and American joint training exercises in July, just a few weeks before Georgia's blitzkrieg attack on South Ossetia. In the UN, Russian attempts in the early hours of the war to pass a resolution calling for a cease-fire were shot down by American and British diplomats, who objected to the clause calling on both sides to "renounce violence"-exactly Saakashvili's position.

The question we must ask is: Are we willing to risk war, including nuclear holocaust, in order to fulfill the aspirations of Mikhail Saakashvili? While Bush and McCain speak of Saakashvili as if he's a combination of Thomas Jefferson and Nelson Mandela, he's seen by his own people as increasingly authoritarian and unbalanced. Last year, Saakashvili sent in his special forces to violently disperse opposition protesters in the capital city, followed by a declaration of martial law. He sacked the opposition television station (partly owned by Rupert Murdoch), exiled or jailed his political opponents, and stacked the courts with his own judges while removing neutral observers, leaving even onetime neocon cheerleaders like Bruce Jackson and Anne Applebaum feeling queasy. Hardly the image of the "small democratic nation" that everyone today touts.

The Russian response has, of course, been disproportionate and heavy-handed-exactly what's to be expected of them ever since Boris Yeltsin first showed the world how post-Soviet Russia fights its wars, starting with Chechnya in 1994. Georgia has been terrorized by indiscriminate aerial bombing and the constant threat of invasion by a vastly superior Russian force-eerily reminiscent of NATO's campaign against Serbia in 1999. Indeed, many observers believe that the current Russian response is a direct blowback of the Kosovo campaign, which is why there are so many similarities.

But what is the best way to respond? The neocons and even CNN reports talk about exploring military options, which is absurd given the consequences of war with nuclear-armed Russia. Woofing loudly like John McCain is likely to prove as effective as Bush's woofing did with North Korea, before he was forced to crawl back to the negotiating table.

In fact, one of the most effective ways America could respond to this crisis is by rethinking its entire geopolitical approach of the past two decades, which has been hegemonic, arrogant, hypocritical and reckless. If we set a better example, then we could at least reclaim the moral authority, or "soft power," that we once had.

Instead, we've left the world other more brutal lessons about geopolitical power and how to use it, and the Russians are showing they've learned from us well. One lesson they learned from Kosovo is that when you bomb a petty nationalist leader like Saakashvili or Milosevic, eventually-when the cease-fire is called and the sense of defeat settles in-the nationalist firebrand who brought them to defeat pays with his seat in power.

Hysterical Western Media Hype Flimsy Cyber War Against Estonia

There's been a lot of bleating in the West lately about Putin stomping on the last remnants of Russia's free press, but after witnessing Western coverage of last month's cyber-attacks on the websites of Estonian banks and government offices, it's hard to say how the Western press is superior or even much different from the sleaziest Kremlin mouthpieces.

By now everyone and their iGrandma is quaking in their workstations over reports of "the world's first massive cyberstrike by a superpower on a tiny and almost defenseless neighbor," as Newsweek delicately described the attacks. Most outlets' versions were slightly more subtle, emphasis on "slightly." For example, this May 17 ABC News lead paid minimum lip service to journalism ethics:

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Death at the Supermarket

This article first appeared on Comment is Free, a news and analysis group blog run by the British newspaper The Guardian.

The blazing hot summer has produced yet another American workplace rage massacre by a disgruntled employee. On June 25, a 22-year-old worker at a Safeway grocery chain warehouse in Denver, Colo., fired a handgun at his co-workers, killing one and wounding five, and set several fires in an attempt to burn down the massive 1.3 million square foot structure where he worked, before he was finally gunned down by police.



"I can't imagine this happening out here. It could happen anywhere." This was how one employee, Raymond Rivas, reacted to the shooting -- words that are a repeat of a repeat. This disbelief can be found in practically every article about a workplace massacre, word for word, going back to the first ones some 20 years ago.



These workplace rampages, in which an employee blasts his co-workers, are now a regular feature of American life, yet they are still grossly misunderstood and oddly ignored. One would think that after 20 years of this new species of crime, with hundreds of dead and wounded, there should be a massive body of literature devoted to studying and explaining it. And yet they are one of the last true "Made in America" products.



The rage murder crime first appeared in the mid-late 1980s, when a rash of post office massacres by postal employees gave American slang a new term: "going postal." Within a few years, post office massacres jumped like a virus to the private workplace, beginning with a disgruntled employee at a printing press in Louisville, Ky., who killed or wounded 20 co-workers in 1989 ... and from there, the crime metastasized to the middle-class American schoolyards.



Until the late 1980s, no one had even conceived of the workplace as a potential killing zone where any co-worker is a potential rage murderer. Today, gossiping over who is most likely to "go postal" in your office is one of the favorite water cooler conversation topics -- and also a sly way to make sure you're on the witchhunting end of the workplace clique, rather than on the suspected-weirdo end. You have to be careful though when gossiping -- offices today are increasingly like high security camps, complete with surveillance video cameras, security badges, armed guards and undercover informants.



In the case of the June 25 massacre, the media and the culture reacted as they always do: answering the "why" by focusing on the rampager. And as always, this trail led to a dead end, so to speak.



Yet very little attention was given to the one possible motive, which the media has barely focused on: Michael Ford, the killer, was apparently “teased” and "harassed" by co-workers for being Muslim.



This may strike Normal People as a pretty weak reason to try to murder your co-workers, as proof that Ford was sick and weak. Yet it is interesting that so many schoolyard shootings in middle-class America are also triggered by bullying. Indeed a lot of workplace massacres, such as the first big one in Louisville, featured a murderer who had been brutally hazed or teased by coworkers.



The hazing, the coworker-on-coworker cruelty, is real, but it's a symptom of something larger: a corporate culture gone bad.



And this is where the media sleuths always avert their eyes -- because then it means looking at what really changed in the 1980s that might bring about rage in the workplace at this point in time.



What changed in the U.S. workplace wasn't a sudden influx of guns on the market, or an influx of psychos in the workplace, but rather the most obvious and powerful cultural force of all: Reaganomics.



But you can't bring that up. Reaganomics is accepted as a kind of law of physics, the ultimate example of America's cultural and moral superiority, at least according to our cultural propaganda.



Yet if you consider the possibility that these crimes have a socioeconomic cause, as does inner-city violence, then you find that much more is revealed by profiling the company where the massacre took place than by profiling the murderer.



Profile Safeway. Its current CEO, Steve Burd, is a classic post-Reagan corporate vampire whose every working hour has been dedicated to enriching a tiny layer of shareholders and executives -- including himself -- at the expense of tens of thousands of Safeway employees. Burd's policies of constantly slashing workers' pay, pensions, health care benefits and so on earned him hefty bonuses during Safeway's best years in the '90s.



Instead of distributing the earnings windfall back to workers, he went on a reckless (and some say corrupt) acquisition spree, which came under fire from some shareholders for obvious conflicts of interest in many of the companies acquired (which had ties to some Safeway directors).



When these acquisitions turned out to be bad buys, Burd did what all post-Reagan CEOs do: He made his employees pay it. So in 2003, he tried further freezing wages, raiding the employee pension funds and forcing workers and retirees to pay for health care benefit payments for the first time in Safeway's history. This led to a five-month workers' strike by some 70,000 California employees in 2003-2004, the longest grocery worker strike in American history.



Burd's real-world villainy, and the utter futility of resisting it, was summed up in early 2004 by Rev. Jim Conn, a Methodist who led a several-hundred-mile pilgrimage up to Burd's home to plea for him to look into his heart: "We are praying for this man, Burd, who has been so recalcitrant, so cold to his workers. He needs to know about the lives he is affecting."



Prayer didn't melt the ogre's heart: Eventually workers agreed to a new contract requiring them to pay for health care benefits, and they got no salary increase as they'd fought for. But perhaps God was listening to Burd's prayers, because last year he earned 42 percent more than in 2004: $3.25 million in salary and bonus, and 1.03 million share options.



In 2002, Burd boasted that he planned to raise Safeway's share price in part by "financing price reductions by lowering costs, including restructuring labor contracts. ..."



Like other post-Reagan corporate heroes such as "Neutron" Jack Welch -- who fired 120,000 GE employees while making billions for the superwealthy -- and Al "Chainsaw" Dunlap, who took over Scott Paper in 1994, fired a third of the employees and walked away with over $100 million in stock options 19 months later -- Burd gets away with this plunder, his only threat being a salvo of Methodist poison-prayers, and he gets to be the hero too. Ask most Americans today, and they'll tell you -- even the ones who stand to lose from it -- that a company's highest priority is not its responsibility to its employees, but its responsibility to its tiny clique of obscenely rich major shareholders. And these people are considered sane!



Some rampage murderers were very explicit about tying Reaganomics to the destruction of their lives, such as Robert Mack who shot his supervisor at General Dynamics in 1991.



The 65-year-old who shot up his American HomePatient office in May of this year told police that he acted after fearing that he was going to be fired. Then he killed himself.



American HomePatient recently got creamed by Bush's Medicare reform bill, which is shifting money towards funding prescription drugs (thus handsomely paying back Bush's drug industry donors) and away from covering necessities like home oxygen for seniors, since companies like American HomePatient that provide that equipment don't have a hundredth of the lobby power that the drug companies do. The result? A 65-year-old worker who gave the last 17 years of his life to the company has to be let go. And for many people today, getting fired means death.



A new survey showed that Americans are becoming increasingly lonely and isolated. In 1985, most Americans reported having three close friends; by 2004, a quarter of Americans said they had "no one" close to them, and another 50 percent said that they had at best two close friends.

One of the survey's authors, Duke University professor Lynn Smith-Lovin, noted, "This is a big social change, and it indicates something that's not good for our society."



Indeed.



Michael Ford's rampage massacre was typical of the post-Reagan era in some details, such as how he fired 16 shots and was killed in a hail of police bullets, taking seven hits. Yet it stood out in its destructive ferocity. Ford, considered a quiet young man who was engaged to be married and had no history of crime or problems at work, was at least as intent on burning the huge building down as he was in shooting his co-workers, suggesting that he was out to kill not just a few co-workers who'd teased him, but the company itself. As police chief Gerry Whitman said, "He spent more time setting fires than shooting." Burn, Safeway, burn.



Interestingly, some of the fires Ford had set the day before were reported to have rekindled. As a fireman on the scene noted, the rekindled fires "added to the employees' unease."

Cheney Starts New Cold War Over Oil

[Editor's note: Mark Ames' essay is a lucid overview of what the Bush administration has been up to in Central Asia and former Soviet republics since 9/11. No, not fighting "terror" -- they've been working on a long-term oil grab by supporting dictators and gaming democratic elections in their favor, all while publicly bemoaning Russia's "slide" back to a dictatorship. Ames' lively writing style turns a heavy story into one of the best articles you'll read this month.]

One of the oddest reactions to Vice President Cheney's now-infamous speech in Lithuania, the one which many Russians believe officially heralded the start of a new Cold War, came from the mainstream American media. What was so strange? They actually did their job.

Instead of simply parroting the Administration's latest pieties, they actually allowed themselves to smell a rat. And what a putrid, bloated, rotting-in-a-flooded-Manila-gutter rat odor it was! You'd have to have been literally brain dead not to have smelled it.

The rat of course was the insane hypocrisy of a foaming fascist like Dick Cheney suddenly getting all Amnesty International righteous over a bad regime that does bad things. The fact that Cheney flew straight to Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan right after squirting over Russia's human rights problems turned the rank hypocrisy into a bad black comedy routine, barely fit for even a Tom Green. Kazakhstan is a country where opposition politicians and media aren't merely jailed, exiled or cowed as they are in Russia, but are shot and dumped in forests, Miller's Crossing-style, on behalf of a despot whose family runs the country like its own fiefdom.

Azerbaijan is even worse, if such a thing can be imagined not only because the Azeri authorities brutally suppress pro-democracy protests, but because it is the first and only post-Soviet state to officially create a despotic family dynasty. After former leader Heydar Aliyev died in office, he passes power (along with control over the country's vast oil wealth) to his son, Ilham Aliyev, in 2003, a dynastic transfer that was then "legimitized" by rigged elections that the Bush administration somehow manages each time to view as a democracy cup 1/100 full rather than 99/100 empty.

Incredibly enough, a few members of the mainstream American press were shocked into action by Cheney's crackpipe hypocrisy. On May 9th, the normally anti-Putin New York Times published an editorial titled, "Cheney as Pot, Putin as Kettle," tepidly calling into question Cheney's bizarre meta-irony act: "spearing Russia while flirting with its even more undemocratic neighbors confuses the message, especially when done by a vice president identified with oil interests." Tepid, but at least a rare acknowledgement of Cheney's insane logic.

The hypocrisy was so bizarre and brazen that even bland newswire agency AP got in on the outting bandwagon, with a May 8th article, "Analysis: Cheney promotes democratic reform everywhere but oil-rich Kazakhstan." You'd almost think that the American media actually questions its leaders' motives!

Even the pro-Cheney Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by Andrew Kuchins, although in a clever ruse he tried to diffuse it by pointing out how obvious it was: "Alert the media: We've identified double standards in U.S. foreign policy!" he sneered, before moving on to the "real" issues raised. As if obvious evil is somehow less pernicious than the kind of evil you have to look for.

Cheney's speech raised a lot of questions and a lot of debate, but no one asked one of the most obvious questions of all: Why did Cheney choose to flaunt his hypocrisy in everyone's faces? Why not try faking it, the way most Western leaders operate when they mix righteous words with rapacious policies? Why didn't Cheney choose to put a bit of space in between his speech attacking Russia's record on democracy and his visits to the despotic Central Asian states?

Or put another way, what if it wasn't a mistake. What if the blatant, insane hypocrisy was the real message... and always has been all along?

The best way to answer this is to go back and retrace how Russia and America wound up in this once-unimaginable situation. It would seem to be a massive policy failure, allowing Russia to become a Cold War enemy again, perhaps the greatest American foreign policy failure of our time. Unless, of course, you put all the blame on Putin's evil little authoritarian shoulders, which is the natural tendency of nearly every American commentator.

They say Americans' memories are short, but that's like saying a Nazi's sense of compassion was fleeting. Americans literally rewrite their memories over and over. Case in point: Just four-and-a-half years ago, Vladimir Putin was treated as a rock star in America. You probably forgot about it, so I'm going to remind you because it's not a pretty memory.

After 9/11, Putin became our biggest, bestest friend in the world when he made his famous first-to-the-phone call to Bush and green-lighted American forces entering Central Asia for the war against the Taliban. I was in America at the time, and I remember all too well how happy Americans were to have the mysterious, morally ambiguous yet effective evil guy joining our side.

In fact, I can say that I've never, ever in my lifetime seen a foreign leader more adored than Putin was in that brief period, from September through December of 2001. Articles like the November 21st "To a Russian, with Lust," by Boston Globe staffer Joanna Weiss, capture the rather embarrassing Pootiemania: she described the man who had shut down the formerly independent TV station NTV, quashed the free media and consolidated power as "Compact and athletic, with a Mona Lisa smile," "visibly buff," "balding, in a cute Jean-Luc Picard sort of way... or maybe a Thorn Yorke sort of way." Even heavyweights like the Los Angeles Times, which now tries to out-anti-Putin its rivals, wore out their kneepads fawning over Putin.

In its November 24th editorial, "In a Word, Zdorovo," the L.A. Times concluded, with full Spielberg happy ending and John Williams score accompaniment, "Never mind for now the remaining political and policy differences between the two countries and the savvy public relations. ... If Americans could feel real terror at times about an opponent's evil 50 years ago, then there's nothing wrong with reveling for a warm moment in the changes today. 'Wow' is one word for it. 'Zdorovo' is another."

Ah, it's so vile it's is fun. For me anyway. God, I hope whoever wrote that has to read it again. Read it and weep, folks.

Yes, Putin had literally charmed the socks of America, because, well, let's admit the shameful truth we were scared shitless then. We had a big yella stripe running up our backs. We didn't know if we'd actually win in Afghanistan, or if we'd be plunted into a new Dark Age of fire and plague. In that sense of insecurity and existential crisis, a man like Putin was exactly what Americans, even liberals, felt they needed. Strange, but Russians, who experienced total collapse over the past 20 years, are called savages for supporting Putin for the same reasons. But at least Russians support him without that sphincter-twisting sentimentality found in that L.A. Times Op-Ed.

When Putin reached out to Bush and gave him everything he asked for post-9/11, his base was furious. Particularly the Siloviki -- the Russian officials from the old Soviet intelligence and military services who came into power in the late Yeltsin and Putin years -- who saw it as yet another in a series of betrayals, a repeat of Gorbachev and Yeltsin, whom they believed had betrayed Russia's interests in order to earn a pat on the head from America. They argued that Putin was being naive and foolish just as his predecessors were; and that in the end, the Americans would fuck him like they fucked Gorby and Yeltsin. Russia would get nothing for helping, neither would Putin; nothing but problems, just like what happened in the '90s.

The argument wasn't simply a matter of pride. The Gorbachev-Yeltsin years were among the most catastrophic of any nation in peace time. Russia was literally dying off -- its economy plunged by over 60 percent, and its death rate soared to unheard of levels. Another repeat of that could destroy Russia for good, they argued.

So it was a huge risk for Putin to cozy up so closely to America post-9/11. He went out on a limb, made a bold move against his own powerful base, in the hope that the benefits of a mutually-supportive relationship with America would in the end prove him right and make him, and Russia, stronger. And at first it looked like he might be right, as America was undergoing Pootimania.

But then America won the war in Afghanistan much more easily and quickly than we or anyone else thought. And that war victory went to our heads. Suddenly, we decided we didn't need Putin's help anymore.

In fact, as the Newsweeks triumphantly declared, we didn't need anyone's help anymore. America was not just a superpower, it was a hyperpower, perhaps the most powerful (and benign) empire that the world had ever seen. We were finally the true "Number One!" That kind of thinking went to our heads and turned us into assholes. Really Stupid assholes. Overnight, America became what can only be described as "If the Death Star were piloted by Gary Coleman."

And here is where the Timeline for a New Cold War really begins. On December 13th, 2001 after it was clear that Afghanistan had fallen to our allies, Bush announced that America was unilaterally withdrawing from the ABM Treaty.

Putin went on national television, clearly stunned and weakened, calling Bush's move a "mistake." It was a painful broadcast, egg dripping from his face. I've never seen Putin so clearly pimp-slapped before or since.

I remember being shocked at what assholes we'd turned out to be. I couldn't understand why Bush didn't wait even, say, two or three months, at least for the victory dancing to settle down in Afghanistan, maybe throw Russia a bone or two. What was behind the timing?

I contacted a good friend of mine in the Defense Department to ask him why we chose to withdraw from the ABM treaty in such a time and manner as to maximally embarrass Putin for having sided with us. Why didn't we wait?

My Pentagon friend seemed surprised. "We didn't even consider the effect on Putin," he answered. "We only considered what's in our own interest, which is to withdraw now. Besides, we got rid of the Taliban, that was a favor enough for the Russians in our opinion." At the time, Russian anger over Bush's decision to start building a missile shield was dismissed as old Russian paranoia, a holdover of Cold War thinking. Russia had "nothing to worry about," we said.

In fact, the Russians were entirely right to be shocked and paranoid. As Professor Kier Lieber, one of the authors of the recent controversial Foreign Affairs article "The Rise of US Nuclear Primacy," admits that the shield is offensive in nature and only makes sense as a weapon aimed at an enemy like Russia or China. With the sole aim of allowing America to launch a first strike against Russia... and win it. Otherwise, it makes no sense.

"The missile defenses that the United States might plausibly deploy would be valuable primarily in an offensive context. If the United States launched a nuclear attack against Russia (or China), the targeted country would be left with a tiny surviving arsenal if any at all." As for deterring North Korea, Dr. Lieber told me, "You wouldn't have a shield for them, you'd put AEGIS ships all around the Korean peninsula and hit the missiles upon launch." This is where the bad blood started. At America's darkest hour, we reached out to Russia and got full cooperation and trust. And literally the second we felt tough again, we announced our intention to build a weapons system that targeted Russia for total annihilation.

A couple of months later, in early 2002, Bush announced that he was sending Green Berets into Georgia to fight against alleged Al Qaeda terrorists in the Pankisi Gorge. I visited Georgia then, and literally no one on the ground believed that there was a real Al Qaeda threat. What it had everything to do with was training up a strong pro-American Georgian army to secure a planned Caspian Sea oil pipeline, which was due to be constructed through southern Georgia's territory on its way to Turkey, a route chosen to bypass Russia and stay Western (i.e., American).

When the Green Berets were first announced, the Russians, particularly the Siloviki base that first warned Putin against trusting America, went ape shit. First America took East Europe, the Baltics and its former wealth; now the Americans were moving in on what was left, working through the Caucasus and Central Asia, while Russia still couldn't even pacify Chechnya (a conflict which America would now be in an even better position to manipulate).

Just like with the ABM treaty, Putin kept a low profile for the first few days after the Green Berets-in-Georgia announcement, then said that there was no reason to get hysterical. His hand was weak, and he saw no gain in reacting hysterically.

As time went on, it was becoming clear that Bush really didn't plan to leave the military bases he was setting up in Central Asia. I remember working on an Op-Ed piece at the time for the San Jose Mercury News about this, and when I suggested to my editor that the thinking in Russia was that Bush was planning to stay in Central Asia and take what he could, Russia be damned, she was horrified: "No, we couldn't do that," she said. "That would be so wrong of us."

"Yeah, but what can Russia do about it? Nothing," I said.

"But... we're just not like that," she argued. "We're not that ungrateful. The American people would not be happy." Well, we did it. And as usual, the American people didn't care.

The rest of 2002 was about the lead up to the war in Iraq. This is when neocons were genuinely outraged, feeling a sense that they were getting stabbed in the back by a merely-spiteful Russia for not supporting the war. Of course, the fact that Russia stood to lose potential tens of billions in oil contracts and that America stood to gain those tens of billions also played a roll. But most Americans dismissed Russian (and French) objections to the war as mere jealousy and spite.

From Russia, however, America looked like it had literally gone insane, with no limits to its war aggression; part Wermacht, part Napolean's Army. And now America was building up its military capability all around Russia's southern flank in Central Asia and Georgia, and expanding further.

It was at this time that the real battle in this new "Cold War" that the Yukos struggle was coming to a head. Yukos was fast becoming one of top three or four oil companies in the world. Its chairman, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was feted by the very top elite circles of American/Western power, regularly hobnobbing with Bill Gates and Dick Cheney among others.

What we didn't know until later was that Khodorkovsky already deep in a high-stakes struggle with Putin over control of Russia's pipeline network. Owning pipelines was the Kremlin's one stick it wielded over the oil oligarchs.

Khodorkovsky understood that for Yukos to further boost its position, it would need to at the very least wrest control of the pipeline network away from the Kremlin. Khodorkovsky wanted to build up Yukos' value quickly to sell a huge chunk of it to one of Cheney's Texas oil buddies, reportedly either Exxon or Chevron. The reason this was so important for Khodorkovsky was that, since he essentially stole the company during the loans-for-shares privatization scheme in the 1990s, it meant that his hold on the asset was tenuous. The Kremlin could just steal it back any time, as it later did. But the Kremlin would be loathe to steal a massive asset from Exxon or Chevron.

At the same time, Cheney was formulating a worldwide oil grab which he had been working on going back to the 1990s at least. In a speech in 1998, then-CEO of Halliburton Cheney said, "I cannot think of a time when we have had a region emerge as suddenly to become as strategically significant as the Caspian." The reason is simple: The Caspian Sea basin, particularly Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan's shares, holds upwards of $5-10 trillion worth of oil, perhaps more given today's prices.

Meanwhile, Russia emerged as the world's second-largest oil producer, but not much of that was getting to the US. At an Russia-American oil summit held in Houston in late 2002, an agreement was signed to build a pipeline from the rich oil fields in western Siberia to Murmansk, where it could be easily shipped to the US. The pipeline was to be Russia's first private consortium, and Yukos was essentially going to lead it. This was it, the first big play to free up Russian oil from Kremlin control, and get it to the US.

But there was a hitch. Putin and the Siloviki saw this pipeline as an American oil grab. Putin was no longer inclined to like or trust the US after the ABM disaster and the Green Berets in Georgia scandal. No more illusions.

Now you can see where the chips were lining up. Both Cheney and Khodorkovsky had a serious interest in seeing control of the pipelines taken away from the Kremlin and handed to the "free market," where the US would have an advantage; and both of them wanted to see Yukos get bought by a US major, and both wanted to secure that US stake in Russia's oil wealth by every means possible, including political means. Khodorkovsky was transforming both Yukos and himself into a model Westernerizer, and he was becoming increasingly critical of the Kremlin's role in holding Russia back. If Khodorkovsky really was able to transform Russia into a pro-American state, it would obviously be better for Cheney and the oil companies than if the FSB controlled the state, and the oil.

This is what led to Khodorkovsky to allegedly try to buy off and retool the Russian political system. Without political control, he might not keep and grow his assets. While the Kremlin kept the oil companies from becoming even bigger and richer simply so that the Kremlin wouldn't lose control of them.

The Siloviki saw it as a struggle for Russia's survival and independence (and their own too). If Khodorkovsky, working with the most powerful people in the US (the Cheneys and the Houston oil oligarchs), took control of Russia's resources and its power, it would become little more than an appendage of American capitalism, they believed.

In March 2003, America invaded Iraq, turning Russian public opinion decidedly against America as a nation of Huns. That same month, Khodorkovsky was allegedly working with Duma parties he had paid off in order to change the Constitution and weaken the powers of the President in favor of parliament. It was a kind of constitutional coup in the works, a coup which would serve his and the Bush people's mutual interests.

It all ended in July 2003 when Putin jailed Khodorkovsky's business partner, Platon Lebedev, and Yukos was finished. With its destruction went Cheney's hope of getting control of Russian oil.

It's odd now to look back and consider how quietly Bush people reacted to it. My sense is that they didn't expect it -- and that they were too busy with their oil grab in Iraq. I did see the significance of Lebedev's arrest in my column "Russia Thaws" in July, 2003, when I predicted that everything had completely changed after Lebedev's arrest. I'm gloating now because, well, that's what you do when you're right. But I think Cheney and his goons were too busy mired in the unfolding debacle in Iraq that summer, when the dead-enders were first getting their insurgency on, to react to Russia.

Today most of Yukos is in Kremlin hands; Putin's power is uncontested; and Khodorkovsky is in jail. The Murmansk pipeline was canceled. Now the Siberian pipelines, secure in Kremlin hands, are taking oil to Asia.

You could see why a guy like Dick Cheney wouldn't like Putin.

That is the real story behind this mini Cold War. The other part of it is, of course Cheney's longstanding desire to get ahold of Caspian Sea oil. With Russia seemingly lost, this meant that the fight for Central Asia took on more importance. Indeed in 2001, Cheney advised President Bush to "deepen [our] commercial dialogue with Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and other Caspian states." Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan: the two countries he visited right after his Cold War speech last week.

In 1994, Cheney was a member of Kazakhstan's Oil Advisory Board.

He helped broker a deal between Kazakhstan and Chevron, a company where Secretary Condoleeza Rice served on the Board. Today, US oil companies have large stakes in Kazakhstan's oil fields. But most of the oil being pumped goes through Transneft lines out of the Russian port in Novorossiisk. America has been battling with Russia to get Kazakhstan to pump its oil through an alternate pipeline, the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline, that goes through Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey.

In order to secure that pipeline, powerful American oil/politics figures, led by Bush family consigliore James Baker, ingratiated themselves into oil-rich Azerbaijan. Despite that nation's atrocious record on democracy and human rights, in 1996 oil majors like Exxon, Chevron and Amoco, set up the powerful United States Azerbaijan Chamber of Commerce (USACC). Its board members include or included Cheney, Baker, top figures in the oil majors, and top figures in Azerbaijan's government (even crazed war-monger Richard Perle had a place on the board of trustees!).

The task was to get Azerbaijan to agree to the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline, whose stated goal was to ship Caspian oil out of Russia's reach and into the Mediterranean for Western consumption. It worked the pipeline is now operational. And a big event in late 2003 was the key to securing it: Georgia's Rose Revolution.

This was the first of the "color revolutions," and it quickly became apparent that, although it was rooted in genuine dissatisfaction, it was accomplished with massive American aid.

To recap: then-President Shevardnadze was showing signs of drifting away from the US and towards Russia in the summer of 2003. Suddenly, Bush became concerned with Georgia's "backsliding" on democracy, and he sent Baker of all people to tell Shevardnadze that he'd better hold "free and fair elections" or else. The elections were rigged; a carefully coordinated revolution (in fact a coup) was staged to overthrow Shevardnadze; and a pro-Western, US-educated president, Saakashvili, was installed. Shortly afterwards, control over a region of Georgia where the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline passes was taken out of a pro-Russian leader's hands, and given to a pro-American.

The Russians were oddly slow in reacting to the Rose Revolution. They were taken by surprise: in the Siloviks' paranoid way of thinking, the "people" are irrelevant, and everything is manipulated by a tiny elite and outside interests. To them, the entire Rose Revolution was nothing but an American-manufactured coup, which was only partly true.

The same month that Bush and the US denounced the rigged elections in Georgia, they praised even worse-run elections in next-door Azerbaijan, and kept mum over the bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protestors. Why? Because Azerbaijan was giving Cheney what he wanted: oil. Both for his favored oil companies, his friends, and for the West.

In other words, in classic Cold War maneuvering, Aliyev became "our bastard."

If Putin's first real counterstrike in Cold War II was against Khodorkovsky, then his second major counterstrike took place in mid-2004, when Georgia tried to start asserting its control over two Russian-backed breakaway ethnic regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Putin drew a line in South Ossetia, where war started to break out again in the summer of 2004 when Saakashvili tried to assert federal control over it.

It was strange how that war's coverage evolved: in the big Western press, article after article dismissed the notion that there is any legitimate Ossetian grievance, calling it an entirely manufactured Russian ploy to maintain control over Georgia and keep it weak (oddly similar to Russian belief that the Rose/Orange Revolutions were entirely manufactured by cynical American interests). But I happen to know some Ossetians.

Believe me, they exist, and the tensions with the Georgians are very real, and very deep. And valid. The West bleeds for oppressed minorities in literally every corner of the world, even every corner of the Caucasus, except for the Ossetians and the Abkhaz. Why?

Could it be... because they're aligned with Russia?

When Saakashvili tried retaking South Ossetia, Russian-backed troops repelled them. Putin was not going to lose anything else to pro-American interests.

In the summer of 2004, the Georgians realized that the US wasn't going to support a hot war against Russia, so they stood down... and then in September, Chechen terrorists seized a school in North Ossetia, leading to the massacre of hundreds of children. Connected?

If you recall, at the time Putin essentially blamed the West, and specifically, the US, for helping make the Beslan attack happen. He said it was funded with the goal of "weakening Russia" in order to seize and control the region's resources.

It seemed crazy at the time, but looking at the big picture... is it? Putin was widely criticized for post-Beslan moves to cancel gubernatorial elections. But put in this context, it seems like a genuine wartime move to consolidate power in the face of an attack. Not Chechen attacks. But American Cold War-II attacks.

The last great American victory in this Cold War-II was certainly the Orange Revolution. But it was a hollow victory, shocking the Russians into action. Since then, Ukraine has turned into a political, ideological, and geopolitical swamp. The fight is still on; neither side has won yet.

The Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan was the first one to go bad. Since then, it's been nothing but setbacks for the US as it lost its huge military base and its influence in formerly-anti-Russian Uzbekistan, now Putin's bestest buddy in the region. Kyrgyzstan is also showing signs of moving closer to Moscow. Bush's people recently made incredible claims about democracy moving forward in Tajikistan, but it's unlikely that the whitewashing will do much good since the country is under pretty solid Russian control.

Meanwhile, Putin, now completely and forever disabused of any illusions that he would ever be anything to Bush and Cheney but an obstacle standing between Siberian oil wells and Houston oil oligarch bank accounts, has seen his country become wealthier and bolder. He's fighting back, not just in Russia and its neighbors, but also for example by selling weapons to Venezuela and nuclear plants to Iran. Cheney lost out in his bid to secure Russia's oil, but the Caspian oil is still being fought over, especially as Kazakhstan hasn't started pumping yet most of its upcoming oil streams.

That's what this Cold War hype is about and the bleating about democracy, and the seemingly clumsy display of hypocrisy. It's not a Cold War, it's an oil grab gone bad.

I don't think a jackal like Cheney is capable of recognizing hypocrisy. I think he meant everything he said, with a straight face, and that he saw it as both rationally and morally right to chastise Russia's record on democracy while praising Kazakhstan's and Azerbaijan's in the same trip.

Democracy isn't about voting. It's about serving America's interests.

And serving America's interests is more tightly defined a serving the interests of the oil oligarchs in Houston, where Cheney spent the previous 10 years. In fact, it's even more simple than that. It's personal. America's interests are Cheney's interests. Il est l'etat. In that sense, Putin is indeed a genuine menace.

And that's what makes this Cold War so different: Whereas the last one was a mortal struggle over two different systems, this is a struggle between two short, balding, bloodless men, and the oil -- other people's oil -- that made them as powerful as they are today.

Speaking With the Enemy

"Freedom of speech is never an issue when a popular person expresses an acceptable point of view. It is of real value only because it guarantees us access to the unpopular, espousing the unacceptable. Then, we can reject or accept it, condemn it or embrace it. No one should have the authority to make that decision for us. Not our government, and certainly not somebody else's." -- Ted Koppel, ending the Nightline interview with Shamil Basayev, July 28, 2005
"[I]f I'm running a war and I've got representatives of ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, MSNBC, Al Jazeera, and the BBC, and they're out there with my troops and they've got the technical capacity to feed back what is happening live, so that the folks who are sitting in Baghdad have only to turn on their set to CNN and they can see what's happening on the front lines from the American vantage point -- I'm saying it would be criminal to permit that." -- Ted Koppel, Media Law Resource Center 2nd Annual Dinner Celebration, November 13, 2002
Russia's hysterical protest against the Nightline interview with Shamil Basayev offered up a rare opportunity for Americans on the left and right to unite and celebrate our deepest cultural virtues. The story was almost too perfect. A villain -- the Kremlin -- who needs no complicated explanation beyond a "Soviet" or "authoritarian" modifier to drudge up the old archetype. The hero -- America's religious commitment to free speech -- is immediately understood by all. The object of the Kremlin-American clash -- Shamil Basayev, the Chechen warlord/terrorist who masterminded several spectacular terror attacks in Russia, including the one in Beslan last year that left nearly 350 people, mostly children, dead -- a mere backdrop to this tale. After all, Basayev doesn't threaten America, and he even seems to like us. It's the Kremlin that's the real villain.

Flying monkeys

To recap: On July 28th, Nightline ran an interview with Basayev conducted by Radio Liberty reporter and Russian dissident Andrei Babitsky. The Russian government officially protested the broadcast, first by appealing to the U.S. government to pressure ABC not to run the interview, and afterwards, lashing out publicly and through diplomatic channels. Within days, Russia's Defense Ministry declared a boycott of ABC, and on August 2, the government announced that it would not be renewing ABC's accreditation in Moscow, effectively shutting down their operations.

The White House's response was morally unassailable. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters, "The U.S. Government has no authority to prevent ABC from exercising its constitutional right to broadcast the interview." A few days later, Tom Casey, acting spokesman for the State Department, added, "[W]e believe that ABC as well as all other members of the media should have the opportunity for freedom of expression and have the right to report as they see fit."

A strange thing happened right after Casey said that -- dozens of winged primates burst out of his ass, flew around the briefing room screeching and tearing at people's hair, then escaped through an open window. Not a single American reporter saw it happen. They were too busy preparing yet another story about Russia's return to the bad old days, like this New York Times lead published August 2: "Russia announced Tuesday that it was barring journalists from ABC News from working here, effectively expelling a foreign news organization for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union." [italics mine]

The Washington Post agreed, darkly warning, in an August 7 editorial hysterically titled, "Russia to ABC: Drop Dead," that the Kremlin reaction was "in keeping with the Putin government's increasing intolerance for dissent, especially where Russia's brutal, decade-long war in Chechnya is concerned. When this government is faced with any critical message, its instinctive reaction is to bully and intimidate the messenger."

Imagine that! In our day and age!

The only people who spotted those Foggy Bottom flying ass-monkeys were Russia's state-controlled media personalities, some of the oiliest sycophants to ever appear on any television screen. It's a sad day when these creeps are the only ones who see through the bullshit: They cried hypocrisy, juxtaposing the Bush administration's official piety against its darker actions.

Double standard? What double standard?

It may seem strange that Russians have a better memory about recent American government interference in the media, so just in case you're one of those who suffers from selective amnesia, here is what the Russian media barked about in the days following the Nightline interview. A long, long time ago -- October, 2001 to be exact -- Condoleeza Rice, then-head of the National Security Council, telephoned the heads of the major American television news organizations and warned them not to broadcast a fresh video recording announcement by Osama bin Laden.

The White House's reasoning? As Ari Fleisher put it in a press conference, "At best Osama bin Laden's message is propaganda, calling on people to kill Americans. At worst he could be issuing orders to his followers to initiate such attacks." (For comparison, the Russian Foreign Ministry accused the Nightline interview with Basayev of "supporting the propaganda of terrorism" and containing "direct vocal calls for violence against Russian citizens.")

The independent American media's response to Rice's "suggestion" was an overwhelming "Jawohl!" Fox, MSNBC and CNN yanked the bin Laden video completely, while CBS, NBC and ABC agreed to "screen" all Al Qaeda video messages. The reasoning? As CNN's Judy Woodruff explained, "We are Americans, too. We care about this country." A Pew Research Center poll showed that majority of American were marching right along with Woodruff: Fifty-two percent said they believed that the American news media should withhold videotaped speeches made by bin Laden. In other words, it's American to censor dangerous propaganda. Unless, of course, it's only dangerous to someone else. In which case, it's American to stand up for free speech, no matter how unpleasant.

Even the recent Christian Science Monitor editorial condemning Russia made a special "Condi-Rice-Phone-Call" caveat to its overall pro-free-speech moralizing: "Should terrorists be given air time? Not if they secretly send messages to accomplices or go unchallenged during an interview... ABC's interview of rebel leader Shamil Basayev didn't fit that category."

They wouldn't do it again though, would they?

Right around the time that America's television media agreed to censor Al Qaeda's statements, Al Jazeera's Kabul bureau managed to get the scoop of the decade: an interview with Osama himself, with the indirect participation of CNN. It was the first and only post-9/11 interview with Enemy Number One. And the U.S. didn't want it shown. Vice President Cheney flew to Qatar that same month -- and whattaya know, Al Jazeera quashed the bin Laden interview because, it later claimed, the interview was "not newsworthy." It also agreed to withhold portions of Al Qaeda's video statements that month.

The Bush Administration was on a roll. Flush with the successful censorship of its own media and the media in other countries, it went a step further by accidentally bombing Al Jazeera's bureau in Kabul, and later, during the Iraq invasion, accidentally bombing their bureaus in Basra and Baghdad, accidentally killing one of their journalists, before eventually throwing the news organization out of the country. Several Al Jazeera journalists have been arrested, tortured, or killed by American forces.

Indeed since the invasion, Americans have killed and arrested dozens of Arab reporters working for various news organizations, most recently Yasser Salihee, a Knight-Ridder correspondent who was killed by an American sniper while investigating American-backed death squads in Iraq.

The Bush Administration scored its most recent victory over the "independent" media when it bullied Newsweek into retracting its Koran-defiling story. This feat was widely reported on Russian television as another damning bit of evidence that the Kremlin's media management is the norm in the free world -- so there is nothing to worry about in Russia.

Like many authoritarian regimes around the world, the Kremlin successfully uses these numerous examples of America's own brutal reaction to dangerous journalism in order to show its citizens that managing the media is perfectly normal -- one reason why a majority of Russians support censorship.

At this point it's hard to resist repeating the quote from the Washington Post editorial criticizing the Kremlin's attack on ABC: "When this government is faced with any critical message, its instinctive reaction is to bully and intimidate the messenger." But one resists, because ... well ... it would be unpatriotic to point out American hypocrisy at a time of war.

Any similarity to recent events in America is purely coincidental

At a recent State Department press briefing, a reporter asked McCormick about this glaring double standard. The exchange, printed on the State Department web site, is worth quoting in full:
QUESTION: On this issue, I mean, you know, you're constantly -- U.S. Government officials are constantly complaining about what Al Jazeera airs or doesn't and so on. So do you express the same kind of concern with ABC in this case, promoting, inciting, and so on?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, I'm not going to try to draw any equivalence between what --

QUESTION: No, I'm not --

MR. MCCORMACK: -- between what Al Jazeera has aired in the past in different places concerning the actions in Iraq, concerning misleading broadcasting -- misleading information, misrepresenting different activities. It's a completely separate issue from an American media outlet deciding to broadcast this interview.

QUESTION: Would the U.S. Government have any objection to a U.S. network interviewing Usama bin Laden?

MR. MCCORMACK: Again, I think that different networks, American media networks, have aired portions of tapes released by Usama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri, as well as others. Very, very early on, after September 11th, we asked broadcast networks to take into consideration that these messages might contain signals or other types of information to other terrorist cells, but we made it very clear at that time that that was a matter for and solely the decision of the broadcast networks and the media outlets to decide what it was that they were going to -- what it was that they were going to air. To my knowledge, that's been the extent of our conversations with the media concerning broadcast of tapes, messages, et cetera, from Usama bin Laden and al-Qaida members.

QUESTION: Is there any concern that there could have been such a signal involved in the ABC interview with the Chechen?

MR. MCCORMACK: I'm not aware of any, Saul.
Aside from the reporter's hilarious apology for comparing the two ("No, I'm not -- "), McCormack's last comment is the real punchline. In 2001, White House officials admitted that they didn't know if the Osama tapes which they wanted censored contained coded messages to terrorists. They simply speculated that they "might," to use McCormack's wording. In the Basayev interview, on the other hand, McCormick was "not aware of any" coded messages. Did you catch the difference? "Might" is grounds for government censorship, but being "not aware" is clearly not. "Might"; "might not." It's like a bad playground argument.

And yet, the Nightline interview with Basayev did contain a highly uncoded message that the Russians found particularly infuriating: When asked if he was planning more terror acts like the Beslan massacre, Basayev answered, "I'm making plans. We're always looking for new ways." That did not go down well with the Russians, who have lost more citizens to terror attacks over the past decade than any country -- until America occupied Iraq.

Russian skepticism vs. American self-righteousness

The dispute between Russian and America over the Nightline interview is, on a certain level, a classic comedy of misunderstandings. The Russians, culturally skeptical to the point of cynicism, genuinely believe that only a fool or a liar would deny the White House's powerful influence over American media, dismissing all this talk of a separation of media and government as mere cultural propaganda not meant to be taken seriously by those "in the know." Their attitude is sort of, "Come on guys, we're willing to humor all this free speech crap for protocol purposes, but right now we need to get serious. What's your price?"

It is this Russian skepticism that offends Americans more than anything -- because Americans want everyone else to believe the same delusions they do. The fact that Russia leaned on the U.S. government to pressure ABC, rather than confining their protests directly to ABC itself (thereby maintaining the fiction that the government is unable to influence them), struck right at the heart of America's cultural fiction about a separation of government and media.

This violation of the playground rules sent America's media elite into their own version of hysterics, knee-jerking against Russia's behavior by first and foremost emphasizing, "We'd never ever do this, we're better than you!" -- as if knowing, somewhere deep in the back of their collective mind, that what the Russians did was all-too-familiar. The Baltimore Sun called the Kremlin's behavior "childish," while the Washington Post whined, "It was especially telling that the Kremlin's first impulse after the program aired was to summon the top U.S. diplomat in Moscow to lodge an official protest, as if the Bush administration exercised control over broadcast decisions by U.S. media. Sorry, guys, that's not the way it works here."

Amazingly, this sense of wounded anger even extended to Ann Cooper, the executive director of the Committee
to Protect Journalists. She argued that the protest over Nightline's interview "exposes the Kremlin's failure to comprehend that -- in sharp contrast with Russia -- U.S. television operates independently of government."

Yet Cooper, a former NPR correspondent in Moscow, failed to consider the most obvious reason why the Russians appealed directly to the U.S. government: the reporter who did the interview, Andrei Babitsky, is a longtime employee of Radio Liberty. In other words, he's a U.S. government employee!

What did the U.S. know, and when?

Babitsky, a Russian citizen, has worked out of Radio Liberty's Prague bureau for the past four years. He moved there after repeated harassment at the hands of Russian security forces due to his controversial coverage of the Chechen conflict, which was deemed too sympathetic to the rebels and too focused on Russian brutality. In 2000, he was detained and "disappeared" into Russian filtration camps in what most believe was a deliberate attempt approved at the very top (i.e. by Putin) to punish Babitsky.

Why would the Russians be so sensitive over Radio Liberty reports? Consider its past: Radio Liberty was founded in 1949 and run by the CIA as part of its psyops campaign against the Soviets. The umbrella organization that ran Radio Liberty also started Radio Free Afghanistan in the 1980s, beaming anti-Soviet, pro-mujahedeen propaganda. So from the Kremlin's point of view, critical Radio Liberty reports out of Chechnya had an all-too-familiar and sinister odor.

How to explain away this obvious U.S. government connection to the Basayev interview? Slapstick comedy: Babitsky claimed that he was "on leave" from Radio Liberty when he arranged the interview, meaning, by some strange playground logic, the U.S. government had no involvement. Nope, none at all.

Donald Jensen, Radio Liberty's director of communications, backed up Babitsky's excuse: "In the second half of June, Babitsky was officially on holiday," he told RIA-Novosti. "He could have traveled to California to have a rest, stayed in Prague, but now we know that he traveled to Russia." In other words, his employer only found out after the vacation what Babitsky was doing. "When an employee is on holiday, he chooses and decides himself where he should be." Ah yes, America is a land of free choices! Jensen told the interviewer that Radio Liberty only found out about Babitsky's interview from ABC, after they acquired the video.

Think about this again. Babitsky would have needed plenty of time to arrange the interview -- which involved planning the harrowing logistics, crossing several borders by car (at times blindfolded), safety assurances, technical assistance and so on. We're to believe that he never once told his longtime employer -- an American government organization which may or may not still be a CIA operation -- what he planned to do during his "vacation," even though it was clear from Russia's past behavior that the interview would cause a major scandal? And the reason he didn't tell them is that everyone is free to do as they choose? You'd have to have never worked for an American organization to really believe that employees have freedom of choice. In anything.

Explanation by committee?

Babitsky's own account is full of contradictions. In an interview with the Moscow Times published on August 1, he "refused to disclose other details about the interview, citing instructions he had received from his superiors" at Radio Liberty. This suggests that they were more clued in than they let on. Yet in subsequent interviews, Babitsky said he arranged the interview while on vacation. I didn't know that government employees cease to be government employees while on vacation -- does this mean that President Bush, the next time he's on vacation (which technically means right now, as you're reading this), can, for example, split for Amsterdam for a relaxing red-light-district binge, just so long as he gave two weeks' notice? Cuz you know, it's really no one's business what he does while on vacation -- it's a free country, by gum!

Babitsky's account gets even sillier: In the Nightline piece he claimed that he thought he had arranged to interview the Chechen rebel vice president, Doku Umarov, and was "surprised" when instead, he was brought to Basayev. "I want to say that the meeting was totally unexpected ... I realized the consequences I'll have to deal with. I understood immediately that the Russian authorities would definitely charge me with collaborating with a terrorist." Yet after the Russian authorities reacted angrily, he told the Moscow Times that he claimed that he was shocked by the Foreign Ministry's decision to withdraw ABC's accreditation.

So Babitsky's story is this: He arranged this hugely controversial interview without the knowledge of his government employer because he was on vacation; his employer never inquired where he was going for his vacation; all the plans were arranged presumably in off-hours and out of range of his fellow RFE/RL employees; he didn't plan to interview Basayev, it wasn't his fault; he knew there would be consequences, but was shocked when he learned how bad the consequences really were. Monkeys ... ass ... wings ...

These contradictions and absurdities are relevant not because they discredit Babitsky -- his bravery should be the envy of any serious journalist, and his interview deserved to be broadcast, just as Osama's interviews did too -- but because they strongly suggest that the U.S. government knew that one of their employees was going to interview Basayev, and that they knew that it would cause problems for all sorts of reasons. So they covered up their involvement with the kinds of lazy excuses so transparently lame that they would get most children sent to their room without dinner.

That is why the Russian government appealed directly to the U.S. government to stop ABC from airing the interview. Not because they "failed to comprehend that the U.S. television operates independently of the government," but because the U.S. government is, particularly in this case, the most powerful influence of all.

Of course the Russians were angry

To better understand the Russian position, it helps to recall that the United States recently gave political asylum to Ilyas Akhmadov, the "foreign minister" of the Chechen separatist government-in-exile. One of the first controversial moves by the Bush Administration was to allow a ranking State Department official, John Beyrle, to meet with Akhmadov in February, 2001, breaking precedent with the Clinton Administration, which kept a much greater distance from the Chechen rebels. Today, Akhmadov is a fellow at the government-funded National Endowment for Democracy in Washington.

Robert Bruce Ware, associate professor and expert on the North Caucasus at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, explained the Russian position this way: "In order for Americans to appreciate the Russian position, they should try to imagine how they would feel, and what they would do, if Russia granted political asylum to the Taliban's foreign minister, set him up in a prestigious professional position at the expense of the Russian government, and then broadcast an interview with Osama bin Laden in which he threatened more attacks upon the United States. Then imagine that the journalist interviewing bin Laden is on the payroll of the Russian government, since Andrei Babitsky was working for the Voice of America when he interviewed Basayev."

One wonders how much aluminum the American public has absorbed into their bloodstream to forget all this and maintain, with genuine outrage, their pious belief that we operate under a clear separation of government and independent media, in contrast to the evil Russkies?

The list that keeps on growing

Here are just a few of the more obvious examples of meddling in American media:
  • The government's successful manipulation of the major media in whipping up support for its invasion of Iraq based on false information planted on leading media outlets about alleged WMD threats.
  • Its strict controls on access to information in theaters of war, a policy implemented in the first Gulf War and increasingly refined ever since -- a tactic that the Kremlin consciously emulated in the second Chechen war.
  • Its psyops programs directly infiltrating and manipulating television news programming, such as when members of the U.S. Army 4th Psychological Operations worked for CNN and National Public Radio during the Kosovo War in order to "help in the production of news," as Major Thomas Collins of the U.S. Army Information Service put it.
  • The "Office of Strategic Influence" program that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld tried to push through in 2002, designed to plant false stories in the "international media," including manipulating Western journalists by sending them e-mails that would plant fake ideas and stories which would bolster pro-American PR and blacken America's enemies (the program was canceled, but likely pushed through in a more secretive budget).
  • The study reported by Democracy Now's Amy Goodman which showed that, in a two-week period in the lead-up to the war in Iraq, the four major nightly newscasts of ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS conducted 393 interviews about the merits of the war, only three of which were with anti-war representatives -- despite polls showing nearly half of the population opposed to the war (to which Ted Koppel disingenuously replied, "Where is it written that it's a journalist's responsibility to go check the polls every day and see what mainstream American wants them to do?").
  • And so on ...


The real lesson of this Nightline scandal isn't that it's further proof that Russia is backsliding on civil liberties -- because in all truth, Russia has been backsliding since 1993, when then-President Boris Yeltsin shelled his oppositionist parliament with tacit U.S. approval. Nor is it, as the Russians are complaining, merely a case of double-standards. The fact that the U.S. engages in many of the same underhanded and brute manipulations of the major media as Russia is no vindication of the Kremlin's thuggish behavior towards free speech. It's an indictment of both governments.

What this story reveals more than anything is the larger global trend towards increasing authoritarianism, and the shocking degree of America's collective amnesia in the face of it. This will-to-forgetfulness, in which facile piety replaces skepticism, is a crucial ingredient in creating a society that doesn't even recognize -- or care -- about its own government's growing control over their lives, their minds and their deaths.

Dividing Russia

A lake disappeared in a Russian town east of Moscow this past May. And if the Reuters account of the vanishing lake is to be believed, some local residents blamed the disappearance on the evil Americans. The Western press loves stories like these -- it proves that even God has it in for the Russians. And with good reason: they're anti-American, and they're stubbornly backwards, so therefore, bad things naturally happen to them.

It didn't take long for the smug American sneer-machine to respond. One blogger compiled a list of humorous accounts called, "Memo to Self: Don't Waterski in Bolotnikovo." An article by Matt McClurg on the cleverly named e-zine "Spoof.com," titled, "U.S. Steals Lake-Mocks Russian Village," opens with this ham-fisted side-slapper:

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