The new war against PC – it’s too late and it’s picked the wrong target

Why almost everyone is wrong about political correctness.

Jonathan Chait’s essay on political correctness, ‘Not a very PC thing to say’, published in New York magazine last week, has provoked a transatlantic debate on PC as a ‘system of left-wing ideological repression’. Here, we republish Brendan O’Neill’s 2011 Sydney speech on why it’s wrong to see PC as the handiwork of small groups of intolerant Cultural Marxists.

My favourite example of political correctness involves the American Navy. In October 2001, shortly after America invaded Afghanistan, some of its Navy personnel were preparing missiles that were going to be fired at al-Qaeda and Taliban strongholds. One of the Navy men decided to write some words on the side of his missile to express his anger about 9/11. So in reference to the 9/11 hijackings, he wrote the following message on his missile: ‘Hijack this, you faggots.’

Now, little did he know that even though the American military had rather a lot on its mind at that moment, his message would still cause a massive controversy. When they heard about what had happened, the upper echelons of the Navy were outraged. They expressed ‘official disapproval’ of the homophobic message. They issued a warning that Navy personnel should ‘more closely edit their spontaneous acts of penmanship’. Some unofficial guidelines were issued, covering what could and could not be written on post-9/11 missiles. So it was okay to write things like ‘I love New York’ but not okay to use words like faggot.

That is my favourite example of political correctness for two reasons. Firstly because it sums up how psychotically obsessed with language politically correct people are. Because what these Navy people were effectively saying is that it is okay to kill people, but not to offend them. It is okay to drop missiles on someone’s town or someone’s cave, just so long as those missiles don’t have anything ‘inappropriate’ written on them. Heaven forbid that the last thing a member of the Taliban should see before having his head blown off is a word reminding him of the existence of homosexuality.

This really captures the warping of morality that is inherent in political correctness, where one becomes so myopically focused on speech codes, on linguistic representation, that everything else, even matters of life and death, can become subordinate to that.

And the second reason it’s my favourite example of political correctness is because it captures a truth about PC that is far too often overlooked. Which is that political correctness is not actually the handiwork of small groups of cultural Marxists or liberal malcontents. The rise and rise of PC is not simply down to the activism and agitation of unrepresentative sections of the chattering classes, who detest vulgar language and what they consider to be offensive ideas. If it was, how could we explain the actions of the US Navy? Why would one of the most powerful, well-armed institutions on Earth buckle under pressure from po-mo feminists or people who read the Guardian?

No, political correctness represents something far more profound than its critics appreciate. The victory of PC is built upon the demise and decay of traditional forms of authority and traditional forms of morality. It is parasitical on what we might call the crisis of conservative thought. In fact, I would argue that the power of PC is directly proportionate to the weakness of the old, taken-for-granted forms of morality.

I can understand the temptation to present political correctness as simply the imposition of a stifling framework by small groups of illiberal liberals, to see it as the conscious project of a cut-off, head-in-the-clouds middle-class elite determined to remake everything and everyone in its own image.

Indeed, there are two striking things about political correctness that would appear to bolster the view that it is the creation of a cabal of grumpy, misanthropic feminists and greens. Firstly, PC largely came to the fore at a time when conservative governments were enjoying fairly strong electoral support. In America and Britain, for example, it really took off in the 1980s, when Reagan and Thatcher were in power. So, many members of the electorate were giving their votes to conservative regimes, yet at the same time PC is born and becomes more and more widespread – boosting the notion that a left-leaning cultural elite far removed from the madding crowd sat down one day and drew up some new rules for regulating everyday life and speech.

And secondly, political correctness does tend to be most vociferously promoted by the media and by sections of academia. In short, by rather rarefied, aloof institutions, which have more than their fair share of worthy people.

Yet to look at political correctness in that way only – as a kind of new Ten Commandments enforced by tiny elites – is to miss what is the foundation stone of PC, the ground upon which it is built. Which is the inability of the traditional moralists to justify themselves and defend their way of life and moral system. It is that inability which, towards the end of the twentieth century, created a moral vacuum that was filled by instinctive and often kneejerk new forms of moral control and censorship.

Because when you have a profound crisis of traditional morality, which governed society for so long, then previously normal and unquestioned ways of behaving get called into question. From speech to interpersonal relations, even to nursery rhymes – nothing can be taken for granted anymore when the old frameworks have been removed. All the given things of the past 200-odd years start to fall apart. Political correctness is really the scaffolding that has been hastily erected to replace the old morality. It represents the tentative takeover by a new kind of modern-day moralist. And the end result is undoubtedly tyrannical and stifling and profoundly antagonistic both to individual autonomy and freedom of speech.

To see how political correctness has its origins in the demise of traditionalism, it is instructive to look at the example of the Girl Guides. For 100 years, the Girl Guides in Britain, and also in Australia, was a very straightforward organisation: it was designed to instil girls with imperial pride. The Guides had a very simple code: swear an oath of loyalty to God, queen and country.

Then, about 15 years ago, the British Girl Guides suddenly rewrote their constitution. They turned one page into about 20 pages. There was no more old-fashioned ‘duty to God’ – instead the girls promised to ‘love my God’, in recognition of the fact that in our relativistic times, when both Truth and Christianity are no longer untarnished values, there are many gods. Also, the swearing of an oath of loyalty to the queen was replaced with an expression of sympathy for the queen – ‘because it can’t be easy for her being photographed everywhere she goes!’.

The important thing here is that nobody invaded the Girl Guides’ head office and forced its top women at gunpoint to refashion their values. Rather, the Girl Guides did it themselves, in instinctive recognition of the fact that the three institutions they were previously based around – God, queen and country – no longer enjoyed unquestioned authority. All of those three huge political entities of the modern British bourgeois world – church, monarchy and nationalism – have suffered severe crises of legitimacy over the past 20 to 30 years. The Girl Guides’ adoption of a more ‘appropriate’ way of presenting themselves, their overhauling of their mission, illustrates very well what is the engine of political correctness: not so much an external onslaught by a ‘PC lobby’, so much as internal moral rot amongst more traditional sections of society.

So political correctness is not a simple case of ‘cultural Marxists’ storming the citadel; rather the citadel collapsed, and we now have some rather opportunistic, instinctively authoritarian elements in society attempting to build a new moral system on the rubble.

That is why political correctness is so hysterical, so intolerant, so keen to govern everything from how professors communicate with their students to whether teachers can touch their pupils to when it is acceptable to say ‘blackboard’ – not because it is strong, but because it is weak and isolated. It has no real roots in society or history, like the more traditional forms of morality did. It enjoys no popular legitimacy or public support; in fact, the phrase ‘political correctness gone mad’ rather reflects the disdain amongst large sections of the public for today’s new speech codes and behaviour etiquette. It is the shallowness of PC, its parasitical nature, which makes it so insatiably interventionist.

Because at a time when it is no longer clear what is right and wrong, what is good and bad, who is respectable and who is not, then everything is thrown into a kind of moral chaos, giving rise to a weird hunger among the new elites to clamp down on and closely govern what were previously considered to be normal interactions that required little, if any, external intervention. So even nursery rhymes are being rewritten. In Britain recently, a book of children’s ditties refashioned the old classic ‘What shall we do with the drunken sailor?’, replacing ‘drunken sailor’ with ‘grumpy pirate’. The old song said ‘Stick him in a bag and beat him senseless’; the new one says ‘Tickle him till he starts to giggle’.

We all laugh at this kind of thing, but it’s worth asking: what kind of crazy society rewrites childish songs that have been around for generations and which have never (to the best of our knowledge) led to drunken sailors actually being put in bags and beaten senseless? What kind of society takes such an Orwellian, Ministry of Truth approach, not even to political documents or historic claims, but to songs sung by children in playgrounds and sandpits? Only a society that has utterly lost its moral bearings, which is so morally unanchored, so estranged from given, accepted, natural ways of doing things, that it seeks to recolonise every corner of human interaction.

A more confident moral system would be better able to tolerate deviants. An unconfident, accidental moral system like PC can tolerate no deviancy at all because it continually fears for its own survival.

Too often these days, critics of PC play the victim card. Many right-wing thinkers claim that a conspiratorial cabal of PC loons is ruining our lives. This conveniently absolves these thinkers of having to account for what happened totheir morality and traditions. Where did they go? It is far easier to claim that society has been taken hostage by gangs of lentil-eating, language-obsessed nutjobs than it is to face up to and explain the demise of a way of life that had existed for much of the modern era. Indeed, in many ways the term ‘political correctness’ doesn’t really have much basis in reality – it is the invention of traditionalists unable to explain recent historic turns, so instead they fantasise about the onward, unstoppable march of sinister liberals riding roughshod over their superior way of life.

Of course, the demise of traditional morality did not have to be a bad thing. There was much in those old ways which was also censorious and pernicious and stifling of anybody who wanted to experiment with lifestyle or sexual orientation. The problem is that the old, frequently stuffy morality was not successfully pushed aside by a more progressive, human-centred moral outlook – rather it withered and faded and collapsed under the pressure of crises, creating a moral hole that has been filled by those who have influence in the post-traditional world: the increasingly vocal chattering classes.

But let’s not play the victim in the face of an apparently all-powerful ‘PC police’. No, if you feel like you are being treated as a heretic for thinking or saying the ‘wrong things’ in our politically correct world, then you should start acting like a proper, self-respecting heretic: have the courage of your convictions and say what you think regardless of the consequences.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. The above is an edited version of a speech he gave at the Big Ideas Forum organised by the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney on 1 August 2011


New Antibiotic That Fights Resistant Bacteria Found

by Michael Keller

Scientists combing through soil have found a potential new class of antibiotics that appear to stop infections from drug-resistant microbes, an international team announced today.

The work, though still early in its development, is a bit of good news during a time when global health authorities warn about the dangers of more microbial species developing resistance to drugs. The World Health Organization, for instance, has sounded the alarm about a “post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries, which have been treatable for decades, can once again kill.”

Discovery of the drug, now being called teixobactin, came after screening 10,000 compounds produced by soil-dwelling bacteria that had never been cultured. In a study published in the journal Nature, the team writes that the drug works by disrupting the construction of bacterial cell walls. They were pleasantly surprised to find that the way the drug worked didn’t seem to be stopped by bacterial strains that had evolved the ability to survive antibiotic attack.

“Early on, we saw that there was no resistance development to teixobactin,” said study coauthor Kim Lewis, the director of Northeastern University’s Antimicrobial Discovery Center. “This was, of course, an unusual and intriguing feature of the compound.”

Tanja Schneider, a microbiologist at Germany’s University of Bonn who coauthored the paper, says teixobactin works against bacteria like those that cause potentially fatal drug-resistant tuberculosis and Staph infections by finding a new target in these cells.

“We found that teixobactin targets the bacterial cell wall biosynthesis, which is the most prominent antibacterial target pathway,” Schneider says. “Teixobactin specifically binds to highly conserved cell wall building blocks.”

Instead of attacking proteins, which bacteria can more readily alter to prevent injury, the drug goes after lipids that make up the cell wall and cannot be easily changed. This difference means the drug won’t see resistance build up in bacteria for quite some time. The target lipid pathway “represents a particular Achilles’ heel for antibiotic attack,” Schneider says.

The discovery, which has shown success treating antibiotic-resistant bacterial lung and blood infections in animals, still has a long road ahead before it might be prescribed to patients. Lewis said it could start human clinical trials in two years if all goes well. Development, which will improve characteristics like the drug’s poor solubility in water, is expected to cost in the low hundreds of millions of dollars.

“If it makes it to the clinic, teixobactin will represent a new class of antibiotics,” Lewis says. “A new class is determined by a combination of chemical novelty and its mode of action. By these two criteria, teixobactin is a member of a new class.”

Neil Woodford, Head of Public Health England’s Antimicrobial Resistance and Healthcare Associated Infections Reference Unit, said the discovery of teixobactin could help to deal with the growing number of resistant microbes that respond to an ever-decreasing list of drugs. Still, because of the specific bacterial source of the drug, it can only treat infections by certain types of bacteria. In fact, the antibiotic was isolated from a gram-negative bacteria called Eleftheria terrae, and it can only kill gram-positive bacteria like those that cause Strep and Staph infections.

“Although this is a step forwards, this new discovery would not be suitable for treating infections caused by E.coli, Klebsiella or other Gram-negative bacteria,” Woodford said. “These are the focus of many concerns about antibiotic resistance and finding a new potential treatment for these would be a major breakthrough.”

There may be more discoveries on the heels of teixobactin that answer Woodford’s concerns. The method the team developed to screen bacteria should help in the search for new antimicrobial compounds. Up to 99 percent of bacterial species living in the wild have not yet been investigated for the chemicals they produce. Any one of these species that produces a useful compound could be another weapon in the constant arms race between humanity and the microbes that harm us.

“Pathogens are acquiring resistance faster than we can introduce new antibiotics,” says Lewis. “This is causing a human health crisis. We now have pathogens such as some strains of the microbacterium tuberculosis that are resistant to all available antibiotics.”

Top Image: Staphylococcus bacteria courtesy of Shutterstock.

Sodium’s Explosive Relationship With Water Explained

by Michael Keller

Remember that time in chemistry class when the professor dropped a bit of sodium into a tub of water? You probably recall it if you were there because the demonstration, meant to show the reactivity of certain metals with water, isn’t soon forgotten.

Sodium (Na) is part of a group called the alkali metals, which take up the far left column of the periodic table of elements. The lower down in the column you go, the increasingly powerful exothermic reaction the element produces when it is exposed to water.

Scientists have long known that the fizzling, explosions and flames these elements create when wet is due to the metal rapidly shedding electrons into the water, which transforms the surrounding liquid into steam while also breaking some of the water molecules into hydroxide and flammable hydrogen gas. What had become a bit murky in this process was how the quick production of steam and gas doesn’t form a vapor layer that separates the element from the liquid, which should quench the reaction on the metal’s surface and stop it before it runs away into an explosion.

The question goes beyond just one of curiousity for chemistry professors. Liquid sodium and Na-K alloys are used as a primary coolant in a type of nuclear power generation system called a fast-neutron reactor. For obvious reasons, engineers and scientists need to know all they can about what happens when these alkali metals inadvertently touch water.

Now a team of chemists at the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic and Germany’s Braunschweig University of Technology say they have an answer. By training a very high-speed camera on a drop of sodium and potassium (K) as it falls and then running simulations of moving molecules, they have discovered that the metal’s surface rapidly deforms when it makes contact with water.

This deformation happens when the electrons bolt into the water and what is left is positively charged metal ions, which strongly repel each other. Repulsion causes metal spikes to shoot out from the element’s surface in a miniscule fraction of a second. This dramatically increases the surface area of the metal available to feed into the propagating reaction.

“High-speed camera imaging of liquid drops of a sodium/potassium alloy in water reveals submillisecond formation of metal spikes that protrude from the surface of the drop,” the authors write in a paper published today in the journal Nature Chemistry. “Consequently, a new metal surface in contact with water is formed, which explains why the reaction does not become self-quenched by its products, but can rather lead to explosive behaviour.”

A high-speed camera shows the explosive reaction that happens when a drop of sodium/potassium alloy makes contact with water. Courtesy Mason et al.

Is the CIA More Powerful Than the Senate?

Why a fourth branch of government is emerging.

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

As every schoolchild knows, there are three check-and-balance branches of the US government: the executive, Congress, and the judiciary. That’s bedrock Americanism and the most basic high school civics material. Only one problem: it’s just not so.

During the Cold War years and far more strikingly in the twenty-first century, the US government has evolved. It sprouted a fourth branch: the national security state, whose main characteristic may be an unquenchable urge to expand its power and reach. Admittedly, it still lacks certain formal prerogatives of governmental power. Nonetheless, at a time when Congress and the presidency are in a check-and-balance ballet of inactivity that would have been unimaginable to Americans of earlier eras, the Fourth Branch is an ever more unchecked and unbalanced power center in Washington. Curtained off from accountability by a penumbra of secrecy, its leaders increasingly are making nitty-gritty policy decisions and largely doing what they want, a situation illuminated by a recent controversy over the possible release of a Senate report on CIA rendition and torture practices.

All of this is or should be obvious, but remains surprisingly unacknowledged in our American world. The rise of the Fourth Branch began at a moment of mobilization for a global conflict, World War II. It gained heft and staying power in the Cold War of the second half of the twentieth century, when that other superpower, the Soviet Union, provided the excuse for expansion of every sort.

Its officials bided their time in the years after the fall of the Soviet Union, when “terrorism” had yet to claim the landscape and enemies were in short supply. In the post-9/11 era, in a phony “wartime” atmosphere, fed by trillions of taxpayer dollars, and under the banner of American “safety,” it has grown to unparalleled size and power. So much so that it sparked a building boom in and around the national capital (as well as elsewhere in the country). In their 2010 Washington Post series “Top Secret America,” Dana Priest and William Arkin offered this thumbnail summary of the extent of that boom for the US Intelligence Community: “In Washington and the surrounding area,” they wrote, “33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001. Together they occupy the equivalent of almost three Pentagons or 22 US Capitol buildings—about 17 million square feet of space.” And in 2014, the expansion is ongoing.

In this century, a full-scale second “Defense Department,” the Department of Homeland Security, was created. Around it has grown up a mini-version of the military-industrial complex, with the usual set of consultants, K Street lobbyists, political contributions, and power relations: just the sort of edifice that President Eisenhower warned Americans about in his famed farewell address in 1961. In the meantime, the original military-industrial complex has only gained strength and influence.

Increasingly, post-9/11, under the rubric of “privatization,” though it should more accurately have been called “corporatization,” the Pentagon took a series of crony companies off to war with it. In the process, it gave “capitalist war” a more literal meaning, thanks to its wholesale financial support of, and the shrugging off of previously military tasks onto, a series of warrior corporations.

Meanwhile, the 17 members of the US Intelligence Community—yes, there are 17 major intelligence outfits in the national security state—have been growing, some at prodigious rates. A number of them have undergone their own versions of corporatization, outsourcing many of their operations to private contractors instaggering numbers, so that we now have “capitalist intelligence” as well. With the fears from 9/11 injected into society and the wind of terrorism at their backs, the Intelligence Community has had a remarkably free hand to develop surveillance systems that are now essentially “watching” everyone—including, it seems, other branches of the government.

Think of Edward Snowden, the former CIA employee who went over to thecorporate side of the developing national security economy, as the first blowback figure from and on the world of “capitalist intelligence.” Thanks to him, we have an insider’s view of the magnitude of the ambitions and operations of the National Security Agency. The scope of that agency’s surveillance operations and the range of global and domestic communications it now collects have proven breathtaking—with more information on its reach still coming out. And keep in mind that it’s only one agency.

We know as well that the secret world has developed its own secret body of law and its own secret judiciary, largely on the principle of legalizing whatever it wanted to do. As the New York Times’s Eric Lichtblau has reported, it even has its own Supreme Court equivalent in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. And about all this, the other branches of government know only limited amounts and American citizens know next to nothing.

From the Pentagon to the Department of Homeland Security to the labyrinthine world of intelligence, the rise to power of the national security state has been a spectacle of our time. Whenever news of its secret operations begins to ooze out, threatening to unnerve the public, the White House and Congress discuss “reforms” which will, at best, modestly impede the expansive powers of that state within a state. Generally speaking, its powers and prerogatives remain beyond constraint by that third branch of government, the non-secret judiciary. It is deferred to with remarkable frequency by the executive branch and, with the rarest of exceptions, it has been supported handsomely with much obeisance and few doubts by Congress.

And also keep in mind that, of the four branches of government, only two of them—an activist Supreme Court and the national security state—seem capable of functioning in a genuine policymaking capacity at the moment.
“Misleading” Congress

In that light, let’s turn to a set of intertwined events in Washington that have largely been dealt with in the media as your typical tempest in a teapot, a catfight among the vested and powerful. I’m talking about the various charges and countercharges,anger, outrage, and irritation, as well as news of acts of seeming illegality now swirling around a 6,300-page CIA “torture report” produced but not yet made public by the Senate Intelligence Committee. This ongoing controversy reveals a great deal about the nature of the checks and balances on the Fourth Branch of government in 2014.

One of the duties of Congress is to keep an eye on the functioning of the government using its powers of investigation and oversight. In the case of the CIA’s program of Bush-era rendition, black sites (offshore prisons), and “enhanced interrogation techniques” (a.k.a. torture), the Senate Intelligence Committee launched an investigation in March 2009 into what exactly occurred when suspects in the war on terror were taken to those offshore prisons and brutally interrogated. “Millions” of CIA documents, handed over by the Agency, were analyzed by Intelligence Committee staffers at a “secure” CIA location in Northern Virginia.

Among them was a partial copy of a document known as the “Internal Panetta Review,” evidently a report for the previous CIA director on what the Senate committee might find among those documents being handed over to its investigators. It reportedly reached some fairly strong conclusions of its own about the nature of the CIA’s interrogation overreach in those years. According toDemocratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, the committee head, this document was among the mass of documentation the CIA turned over—whether purposely, inadvertently, or thanks to a whistleblower no one knows. (The CIA, on the other hand, claimed, until recently, that committee staffers had essentially stolen it from its computer system.)

The Agency or its private contractors (intelligence capitalism strikes again!) reportedly worked in various ways to obstruct the committee’s investigation, including by secretly removing previously released documents from the committee’s “secure” computer system. Nonetheless, its report was completed in December 2012 and passed on to the White House “for comment”—and then the fun began.

Though relatively few details about its specific contents have leaked out, word has it that it will prove devastating. It will supposedly show, among other things, that those “enhanced interrogation techniques” the CIA used were significantly more brutal than what was described to Congressional overseers; that they went well beyond what the “torture memo” lawyers of the Bush administration had laid out (which, mind you, was brutal enough); that no plots were broken up thanks to torture; and that top figures in the Agency, assumedly under oath, “misled” Congress (a polite word for “lied to,” a potential criminal offense that goes by the name of perjury). Senators knowledgeable on the contents of the report have repeatedly insisted that when it goes public, Americans will be shocked by its contents.

Let’s keep in mind as well that committee head Feinstein was previously known as one of the most loyal and powerful supporters of the national security state and the CIA. Until recently, she has, in fact, essentially been the senator from the national security state. She and her colleagues, themselves shocked by what they had learned, understandably wanted their report declassified and released to the American people with all due speed. It naturally had to be vetted to ensure that it contained no names of active agents and the like. But two and a half years later, after endless reviews and a process of vetting by the CIA and the White House that gives the word “glacial” a bad name, it has yet to be released (though there are regular reports that this will—or will not—happen soon).

During this time, the CIA seemed to go to Def Con 2 and decided to turn its spying skills on the committee and its staffers. Claiming that those staffers had gotten the Panetta Internal Review by “hacking” the CIA’s computers, it essentially hacked the committee’s computers and searched them. In the meantime, its acting general counsel, Robert Eatinger, who had been the chief lawyer for the counterterrorism unit out of which the CIA interrogation programs were run, and who was mentioned 1,600 times in the Senate report, filed (to quote Feinstein) a “crimes report to the Department of Justice on the actions of congressional staff—the same congressional staff who researched and drafted a report that details how CIA officers—including the acting general counsel himself—provided inaccurate information to the Department of Justice about the program.” (Back in 2005, Eatinger had also been one of two lawyers responsible for not stopping the destruction of CIA videotapes of the brutal interrogations of terror suspects in its secret prisons.)

In addition, according to Feinstein, CIA Director John Brennan met with her, lied to her, and essentially tried to intimidate her by telling her “that the CIA had searched a ‘walled-off committee network drive containing the committee’s own internal work product and communications’ and that he was going to ‘order further forensic evidence of the committee network to learn more about activities of the committee’s oversight staff.'” In other words, the overseen were spying upon and now out to get the overseers. And more than that, based on a single incident in which one of its greatest supporters in Congress stepped over the line, the Agency was specifically out to get the senator from the national security state.

There was a clear message here: oversight or not, don’t tread on us.

By the way, since the CIA is the injuring, not the injured, party, there is no reason to take seriously the self-interested words of its officials, past or present, on any of this, or any account they offer of events or charges they make. We’re talking, after all, about an outfit responsible for the initial brutal acts of interrogation, for false descriptions of them, for lying to Congress about them, for destroying evidence of the worst of what it had done, for spying on a Senate committee and its computer system, and for somehow obtaining “legally protected email and other unspecified communications between whistleblower officials and lawmakers this spring relating to the Agency and the committee’s report.” In addition, according to a recent front-page story in the New York Times, its former director from the Bush years, George Tenet, has been actively plotting “a counterattack against the Senate committee’s voluminous report” with the present director and various past Agency officials. (And keep in mind that “roughly 200 people under [Tenet’s] leadership [who] had at some point participated in the interrogation program” are still working at the Agency.)
The Age of Impunity in Washington

In December 2012, the report began to wend its way through a “review and declassification” process, which has yet to end. Once again, the CIA stepped in. The Senate was eager to declassify the report’s findings, conclusions, and its 600-page executive summary. The CIA, which had already done its damnedest to block the Senate investigation process, now ensured that the vetting would be interminable.

As a start, the White House vested the CIA as the lead agency in the review and vetting process, which meant that it was to be allowed to slow things to a crawl, stop them entirely, or alternatively remove crucial and damning material from the report via redaction. If you want a gauge of just how powerful the various outfits that make up the Fourth Branch have become in Washington (and what limits on them still remain), look no further.

Fourteen years into the twenty-first century, we’re so used to this sort of thing that we seldom think about what it means to let the CIA—accused of a variety of crimes—be the agency to decide what exactly can be known by the public, in conjunction with a deferential White House. The Agency’s present director, it should be noted, has been a close confidant and friend of the president and was for years his key counterterrorism advisor. To get a sense of what all this really means, you need perhaps to imagine that, in 2004, the 9/11 Commission was forced to turn itsreport over to Osama bin Laden for vetting and redaction before releasing it to the public. Extreme as that may sound, the CIA is no less a self-interested party. And this interminable process has yet to end, although the White House is supposed to release something, possibly heavily redacted, as early as this coming week or perhaps in the dog days of August.

Keep in mind again that we’re still only talking about the overwhelming sense of power of one of the 17 agencies that make up the Intelligence Community, which itself is but part of the far vaster national security state. Just one. Think of this, nonetheless, as a kind of litmus test for the shifting state of power relations in the new Washington. Or think of it this way: on the basis of a single negative Senate report about its past operations, the CIA was willing to go after one of the national security state’s most fervent congressional supporters. It attempted to intimidate her, tried to bring charges against her staffers, and so drove her “reluctantly” and in a kind of desperation to the Senate floor, where she offered a remarkable denunciation of the agency she had long supported. In its wake, last week, the CIA director dramatically backed off somewhat, perhaps sensing that there was a bridge too far even in Washington in 2014. Amid Senate calls for his resignation, he offered an “apology” for the extreme actions of lower level Agency employees. (But don’t hold your breath waiting for real reform at the CIA.)

In her Senate speech, Feinstein accused the Agency of potentially breaching both the law and the Constitution. “I have grave concerns,” she said, “that the CIA’s search [of the committee’s computer system] may well have violated the separation of powers principles embodied in the United States Constitution, including the Speech and Debate clause. It may have undermined the constitutional framework essential to effective congressional oversight of intelligence activities or any other government function… Besides the constitutional implications, the CIA’s search may also have violated the Fourth Amendment, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, as well as Executive Order 12333, which prohibits the CIA from conducting domestic searches or surveillance.”

In the process, she anatomized an agency covering its tail and its trail, unwilling to admit to error of any sort or volunteer crucial information, while it attempted to block or even dismantle the oversight power of Congress. Her sobering speechshould be read by every American, especially as it comes not from a critic but a perennial supporter of the Fourth Branch.

In retrospect, this “incident” may be seen as a critical moment in the still-unsettled evolution of governing power in America. Her speech was covered briefly as a kind of kerfuffle in Washington and then largely dropped for other, more important stories. In the meantime, the so-called vetting process on the Senate report continued for yet more months in the White House and in Langley, Virginia, as if nothing whatsoever had occurred; the White House refused to act or commit itself on the subject; and the Justice Department refused to press charges of any sort. While a few senators threatened to invoke Senate Resolution 400—a 40-year-old unused power of that body to declassify information on its own—it was something of an idle threat. (A majority of the Senate would have to agree to vote against the CIA and the White House to put it into effect, which is unlikely indeed.)

Whatever happens with the report itself and despite the recent CIA apology, don’t expect the Senate to bring perjury charges against former CIA leaders for any lies to Congress. (It didn’t do so, after all, in the earlier case of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.) And don’t expect prosecutions of significant figures from a Justice Department that, in the Obama years, refused to prosecute even those in the CIA responsible for the deaths of prisoners.

The fact is that, for the Fourth Branch, this remains the age of impunity. Hidden in a veil of secrecy, bolstered by secret law and secret courts, surrounded by its chosen corporations and politicians, its power to define policy and act as it sees fit in the name of American safety is visibly on the rise. No matter what setbacks it experiences along the way, its urge to expand and control seems, at the moment, beyond staunching. In the context of the Senate’s torture report, the question at hand remains: Who rules Washington?

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He runs the Nation Institute’s His latest book, to be published in September, is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single Superpower World (Haymarket Books). To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from here.

10 Fascinating Articles From the CIA’s Secret Employee Magazine

In 2007, Jeffrey Scudder, a veteran information technology specialist at the Central Intelligence Agency, came across the archives of the agency’s in-house magazine,Studies in Intelligence. The catch: They were classified. So Scudder filed a Freedom of Information Act request. And then things got messy. “I submitted a FOIA and it basically destroyed my entire career,” he told the Washington Post.

As a profile of Scudder in the Post explains:

He was confronted by supervisors and accused of mishandling classified information while assembling his FOIA request. His house was raided by the FBI and his family’s computers seized. Stripped of his job and his security clearance, Scudder said he agreed to retire last year after being told that if he refused, he risked losing much of his pension.

Now, in response to a lawsuit filed by Scudder, the CIA has declassified and released some of the hundreds of journal articles he’s requested. Nearly 250 of them have been posted on the CIA’s website. Published over four decades, they offer a fascinating peek at the history of US intelligence as well as the corporate culture of “the Company.”

Here are 10 that grabbed our attention:

1. “How We Are Perceived”: “It came as a shock to learn that there seem still to be large numbers of well read and presumably intelligent US citizens who perceive that we are assassins, blackmailers, exploiters of sex and illicit drugs as well as the creators of our own foreign policy separate and distinct from that of the Department of State,” a clandestine service member wrote in this essay from the winter of 1986. “How can it be that perceptions differ so radically from reality?”

Answer: Leaks to the press “together with some of our acknowledged missteps” had fed a trail of Soviet propaganda, which misinformed the American public. Even the State Department and military intelligence harbored “misperceptions” about the work of the CIA, the author continued, listing a half-page of apparent myths—which has not yet been declassified. “We have the option of keeping mum and allowing the misperceptions to grow, or of tackling them head-on. We have only ourselves to blame if we do nothing to set the record straight.”

2. “11 September 2001: With the President”: President George W. Bush’s CIA briefer, Michael J. Morrell, recalls the events of 9/11, which he witnessed as part of the executive entourage:

The president asked me who was responsible for the attacks. I said “Sir, I haven’t seen any intelligence that would point to responsibility, so what I’m going to say is simply my personal view.” The president told me he understood. I said two terrorist states were capable of conducting such a complex operation [REDACTED] I pointed out [REDACTED]; that neither had much to gain and both had plenty to lose from attacking the United States. Rather, I said the culprit was almost certainly a nonstate actor, adding that I had no doubt that the trail would lead to the doorstep of Bin Laden and al-Qa’ida.

3. “Leo Theremin—CIA Nemesis”: Best known as the inventor of the eponymous instrument used to make UFO noises in B-movies, inventor Leo Theremin was also a Soviet spy. The “Russian Thomas Edison” survived the gulag to become a KGB researcher whose “very existence was a state secret.” His biggest coup: Placing an ingenious bug inside a wooden replica of the Great Seal of the United States that was given to the American ambassador in Moscow in 1945. The hidden microphone was not found until 1960.

studies in intelligence

Not available on newstands: The CIA’s Studies in Intelligence CIA

4. “An Interview With NSA Director Lt. Gen. Michael V. Haydem”: In this prescient Q&A from the pre-9/11 and pre-Snowden era, the then-NSA director and future CIA director spoke about his agency’s reputation for excessive secrecy:

Everything’s secret. I mean, I got an e-mail saying, “Merry Christmas.” It carried a Top Secret NSA classification marking. The easy option is to classify everything. This is an Agency that for most of its existence was well served by not having a public image. When the nation felt its existence was threatened, it was willing to cut agencies like NSA quite a bit of slack. But as that threat perception decreases, there is a natural tendency to say, “Now, tell me again what those guys do?” And, therefore, the absence of a public image seems to be less useful today than it was 25 years ago. I don’t think we can survive without a public image.

Asked about cooperation between intelligence agencies, Hayden’s answer foreshadowed the intelligence failures behind 9/11 and the coming hunt for Osama bin Laden:

Without getting too much into some really sensitive stuff, let’s think about conducting operations against a major international terrorist leader…Think about two agencies, for illustrative purposes, 35 miles apart, trying to marry the data to get the son of a gun. And each of them saying, “I’ll give you my finished reporting, but not my tickets.” You cannot tell me that’s the correct approach in the first year of the 21st century. We’re like two foreign potentates, negotiating a transfer of prisoners, and we’re both wrapping ourselves around our own tradecraft.

5. “Interview with Erna Flegel”: In 1981, future CIA chief Richard Helms spoke with a nurse who was stationed in Adolf Hitler’s Berlin bunker as Nazi Germany collapsed in 1945. About her former employer, whom she was a “fanatical admirer,” Flegel gushed, “When Hitler was in the room, he filled it entirely with his personality—you saw only him, aside from him nothing else existed. The fascinating thing about him was his eyes; up to the end, it was impossible to turn away from his eyes.”

A redacted passage in an article about assassination planning in Guatemala. CIA

6. “CIA and the Guatemala Assassination Proposals, 1952-1954”: As this heavily-redacted article explains, later reviews of CIA activities in Guatemala in the 1950s turned up documents that had not been disclosed during earlier investigations into CIA assassination plots. What was in those rediscovered files? For example, while it was plotting the overthrow of “Communist” Jacobo Arbenz:

Discussions of assassination reached a high level within the Agency. Among those involved were [REDACTED] was present at least one meeting where the subject of assassination came up. DCI Allen Dulles and his special assistant, Richard Bissell, probably were also aware in general terms that assassination was under discussion. Beyond planning, some actual preparations were made. Some assassins were selected, training began, and tentative “hit lists” were drawn up.

“Yet,” the article asserted, “no covert action plan involving assassinations of Guatemalans was ever approved or implemented.”

7. “Interrogation of an Alleged CIA Agent”: This 1983 paper opens with the transcript of the questioning of a suspected American operative by a particularly indefatigable interrogator known as A.I.:

A.l.: Do you work for the American Central Intelligence Agency, Joe?
Hardesty: Hell, no.
A.l.: Why do you persist in lying to me?
Hardesty: I am not lying. You have no right to treat me like this.
A.l.: Of course not.
Hardesty: Since you agree with me, may I go?
A.l.: So you are not lying … interesting.
Hardesty: May I go now?
A.l.: Who are your superiors at the CIA?
Hardesty: I don’t know what you are talking about.
A.l.: You had better think about that statement before I make a record of it.
Hardesty: Go to hell.
A.l.: Why so hostile?

A.I. is short for Artificial Intelligence. The exchange actually took place between a human and a computer, indicating the agency’s early interest in the kind of sophisticated computer learning that’s since become increasingly commonplace.

8. “Managing a Nightmare: CIA Public Affairs and the Drug Conspiracy Story [REDACTED]”: This undated release, apparently from the late ’90s, takes on the PR disaster spawned by San Jose Mercury-News reporter Gary Webb, who had accused the CIA of importing drugs into the United States in the ’80s. Webb’s claims were “alarming,” and the agency was particularly stung by the allegation that it had worked to destroy the black community with illegal drugs. Fortunately, the Studies in Intelligence article explains, “a ground base of already productive relations with journalists” helped “prevent this story from becoming an unmitigated disaster.” Hostile reporters attacked Webb’s work and he eventually became a persona non grata in the newspaper world.

Ultimately, claims the article, part of the problem with the response to Webb’s stories was a “societal shortcoming”: “The CIA-drug story says a lot more about American society…that [sic] it does about either CIA or the media. We live in somewhat coarse and emotional times—when large numbers of Americans do not adhere to the same standards of logic, evidence, or even civil discourse as those practiced by members of the CIA community.” In 1998, the agency partly vindicated Webb’s reporting by admitting that it had had business relationships with major drug dealers. Jeremy Renner stars as the late Webb in a new movie, Kill the Messenger.

9. “The Evolution of US Government Restrictions on Using and Exporting Encryption Technologies”: During the Clinton administration, the government was powerless to stop the development of open-source encryption tools. This Studies in Intelligence article details the many failed official attempts to control the development and proliferation of encryption tools. In the face of opposition from researchers, the business community, and its own experts, the government eventually eased restrictions on the technology. But, as the author noted, spooks yearned for the golden age of electronic eavesdropping: “The US Government, and NSA in particular, would like to return to the Cold War era of complete government control over strong cryptography and skillful manipulation of the research and corporate communities.”

10. Par-Faits (And Other Faits): In 1984, a Mr. [REDACTED] compiled quotations from Performance Appraisal Reports (PARs) over the years along with introductory quips. The subjects and supervisors quoted are also, mercifully, anonymous.

Almost flawless—so to speak: “His English is flawless, if not close to it.”
The clairvoyant case officer: ” … His operational reporting is often on time, often ahead of time.”
His eyes are clear but his prose is measured and smoke-watered: “With the perspective of twenty months of overview of his long march, rather than with the smoke-watered eyes of those who peer too closely into his campfire, I conclude that his pace has been measured.”
The hyperactive dog of a case officer: “…He is a man of constant motion—some of it unnecessary…he bloodhounds even the longest odds and opportunities.”
Although some may wonder: “All said and done, Mr. S. is human.”

The CIA’s Secret Psychological Profiles of Dictators and World Leaders Are Amazing

Psychoanalyzing strongmen, from Castro to Saddam.


Last week, Politico and USA Today reported about a secret 2008 Pentagon study which concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s defining characteristic is…autism. The Office of Net Assessment’s Body Leads project asserted that scrutinizing hours of Putin footage revealed “that the Russian President carries a neurological abnormality…identified by leading neuroscientists as Asperger’s Syndrome, an autistic disorder which affects all of his decisions.”

Putin’s spokesman dismissed the claim as “stupidity not worthy of comment.” But it was far from the first time the intelligence community has tried to diagnose foreign leaders from afar on behalf of American politicians and diplomats. The CIA has a long history of crafting psychological and political profiles of international figures, with varying degrees of depth and accuracy. A sampling of these attempts to get inside the heads of heads of state:


Adolf Hitler (top, middle) as a military patient in World War I OSS/Cornell

In 1943, the Office of Strategic Services, the CIA’s World War II-era predecessor, commissioned Henry A. Murray of the Harvard Psychological Clinic to evaluate Hitler’s personality based on remote observations. Findings: In an unsparing 240-page assessment, Murray and his colleagues concluded that Hitler an insecure, impotent, masochistic, and suicidal neurotic narcissist who saw himself as “the destroyer of an antiquated Hebraic Christian superego.” Also:

There is little disagreement among professional, or even among amateur, psychologists that Hitler’s personality is an example of the counteractive type, a type that is marked by intense and stubborn efforts (i) to overcome early disabilities, weaknesses and humiliations (wounds to self-esteem), and sometimes also by efforts (ii) to revenge injuries and insults to pride.

The report stated that Hitler had suffered from “hysterical blindness” while he was a soldier in World War I. “This psychosomatic illness was concomitant with the final defeat of Mother Germany, and it was after hearing of her capitulation that he had his vision of his task as savior. Suddenly his sight was restored.” (See photo above.) It went on:

Sexually he is a full-fledged masochist…Hitler’s long-concealed secret heterosexual fantasy has been exposed by the systemic analysis and correlation of the three thousand odd metaphors he uses in Mein Kampfandyet—Hitler himself is Impotent. [original emphasis] He is unmarried and his old acquaintances say that he is incapable of consumating the sexual act in a normal fashion.

The dossier predicted eight possible finales for the Führer, including going insane, sacrificing himself in battle, contriving to be killed by a Jewish assassin, and committing suicide: “Hitler has often vowed that he would commit suicide if his plans miscarried; but if he chooses this course he will do it at the last moment and in the most dramatic possible manner…For us it would be an undesirable outcome.”

Fun fact: In 1972, the study’s primary author, psychoanalyst Walter Langer, published his findings as a book, The Mind of Adolf Hitler. It became a bestseller.


Ho Chi Minh with East German sailors Bundesarchiv/Wikimedia Commons

The CIA studied the Vietnamese leader and revolutionary in the 1950s.

Findings: The report remains classified, but a 1994 article by Thomas Omestad inForeign Policy (not online) cites a retired Marine who saw it while working with the agency. The source told Omestad that the CIA misread Ho’s political motivations and goals. A product of the Cold War, the profile “exaggerated Ho’s Marxism and underestimated his ardent nationalism.”


Nikita Khrushchev and John F. Kennedy in Vienna, 1961 TASS/ZUMA

The CIA profiled the Soviet premier in advance of his 1961 meeting with President John F. Kennedy in Vienna. Reading up on his adversary got JFK hooked on CIA personality profiles—particularly “salacious secrets about foreign leaders,” according to historian Michael Beschloss. The Soviets also profiled Kennedy for Khrushchev, describing him as a “typical pragmatist” whose “‘liberalism’ is rather relative.”

Findings: The CIA portrayed Khrushchev as “a crude peasant who liked to be unpredictable and two-faced,” Gunter Bischof and Martin Kofler wrote in a book on the summit. The dossier described him as:

An uninhibited ham actor, who sometimes illustrates his points with the crudest sort of barnyard humor, Khrushchev is endowed on occasion with considerable personal dignity. He has a truly unusual ability to project the force of his own powerful personality…

[H]e is immoderately sensitive to slights—real or imagined, direct or inferred—to himself, his political faith, or his nation, all of which he views more or less interchangeably…

Capable of extraordinary frankness, and in his own eyes no doubt unusually honest, Khrushchev can also on occasion be a gambler and a dissembler expert in calculated bluffing. It is often hard to distinguish when Khruschev is in his own eyes voicing real conviction and when he is dissembling…

It is also difficult with Khrushchev to tell whether his anger is real or feigned…He is less able to conceal his formidable temper when he is tired…


Fidel Castro, seeking the “adulation of the masses” KEYSTONE Pictures USA/ZUMA

The CIA’s psychiatric staff published a secret report on the Cuban leader in December 1961.


Fidel Castro is not “crazy,” but he is so highly neurotic and unstable a personality as to be quite vulnerable to certain kinds of psychological pressure. The outstanding neurotic elements in his personality are his hunger for power and his need for the recognition and adulation of the masses…

Castro has a constant need to rebel, to find an adversary, and to extend his personal power by overthrowing existing authority. Whenever his self-concept is slightly disrupted by criticism, he becomes so emotionally unstable as to lose to some degree his contact with reality…

Castro’s egoism is his Achilles heel.


Menachem Begin, JimmyCarter, and Anwar Sadat at Camp David, 1978 CIA

In anticipation of the 1978 Camp David talks, President Jimmy Carter asked the CIA to help him prep with psychological profiles on Israeli Prime Minister Begin and Egyptian President Sadat. Following the summit, Carter praised the spy agency for its dossiers: “After spending 13 days with the two principals, I wouldn’t change a word.”

Findings: Sadat was a big-picture guy and Begin was into the details, but both were willing to negotiate. The CIA reported:

Sadat’s self-confidence and special view of himself has been instrumental in development of his innovative foreign policy, as have his flexibility and his capacity for moving outside of the cultural insularity of the Arab world. He sees himself as a grand strategist and will make tactical concessions if he is persuaded that his overall goals will be achieved…His self-confidence has permitted him to make bold initiatives, often overriding his advisors’ objections.

The profile described Sadat’s desire to grab the limelight as his “Barbara Walters syndrome” and “Nobel Prize complex.”

On the other hand, recalled Jerrold M. Post, the psychiatrist who launched the CIA’s profiling division, Begin was marked by his “predilection for precision and legalism.” His CIA profile noted that “Begin believes that face-to-face meetings between world leaders can bring about changes in their approaches to complex and seemingly intractable international problems.”


Moammar Qaddafi Donatella Giagnori/Eidon Press/ZUMA


In the early 1980s, the CIA tried to make sense of the Libyan strongman, whose erratic actions were worrying the Reagan administration.

Findings: Bob Woodward quotes the study in Veil, his book on the CIA:

Despite popular belief to the contrary, Qaddafi is not psychotic, and for the most part is in contact with reality…Qaddafi is judged to suffer from a severe personality disturbance—a “borderline personality disorder”…Under severe stress, he is subject to bizarre behavior when his judgment may be faulty.

A subsequent CIA profile of the Libyan leader, writes Woodward, attributed his behavior to “an approaching or actual midlife crisis.”

(Fun fact: After realizing that President Ronald Reagan was not a big reader, the CIA started presenting him its leader profiles as videos with narration and music.)


Saddam Hussein KEYSTONE Pictures USA/ZUMA

In 1990, Jerrold Post, the founder of the CIA’s now-defunct Center for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behavior, presented “a comprehensive political psychology profile” of Saddam to the House Armed Services Committee.


The labels “madman of the Middle East” and “megalomaniac” are often affixed to Saddam, but in fact there is no evidence that he is suffering from a psychotic disorder.

Saddam’s pursuit of power for himself and Iraq is boundless. In fact, in his mind, the destiny of Saddam and Iraq are one and indistinguishable…In pursuit of his messianic dreams, there is no evidence he is constrained by conscience; his only loyalty is to Saddam Hussein. In pursuing his goals, Saddam uses aggression instrumentally. He uses whatever force is necessary, and will, if he deems it expedient, go to extremes of violence, including the use of weapons of mass destruction…

While Hussein is not psychotic, he has a strong paranoid orientation…

Saddam has no wish to be a martyr, and survival is his number one priority. A self-proclaimed revolutionary pragmatist, he does not wish a conflict in which Iraq will be grievously damaged and his stature as a leader destroyed…Saddam will not go down to the last flaming bunker if he has a way out, but he can be extremely dangerous and will stop at nothing if he is backed into a corner.


Jean-Bertrand Aristide Peggy Peattie/ZUMA

In 1991, the CIA drew up a classified psychological profile of the Haitian president, who had just been ousted in a military coup. As the Clinton administration prepared to restore him to office in 1994, the agency showed the profile to members of Congress, igniting a campaign to withdraw American support for the exiled leader.

Findings: According to the profile, Aristide suffered from manic depression, had sought treatment at a Montreal hospital in the early ’80s, and was taking a powerful antipsychotic drug. The CIA also claimed Aristide was prone to violence and might seek to kill his political opponents upon his return to power.

Based on the CIA’s claims, Senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) openly attacked Aristide as a “psychopath” and “a demonstrable killer.” Yet the hospital in question said he’d never been a patient, and Aristide denied that he was on psych meds. “They said worse things about Martin Luther King,” he noted. “As a psychologist, I know about character assassination and about psychological warfare.”

Reviewing the episode in Foreign Policy, Thomas Omestad concluded that it was a black mark on the agency’s reputation for remote profiling: “If policymakers are going to continue demanding profiles, they also ought to demand that the CIA do them right.”

Top image: Hitler: Bundesarchiv/Wikimedia Commons; Castro: KEYSTONE Pictures USA/ZUMA; Khrushchev: TASS/ZUMA; Qaddafi: Donatella Giagnori/Eidon Press/ZUMA


At its most basic level, Trudell is an eye-opening documentary that challenges belief systems. At its loftiest, Trudell will inspire you to reawaken your spirit.

The film combines archival, convert, and interview footage in a lyrical and naturally stylized manner, with abstract imagery mirroring the coyote nature of Trudell.

Pockmarked with adversity, counterbalanced by preservance, Trudell begins in the late sixties when John Trudell and a community group, Indians of All Tribes, occupy Alcatraz Island for 21 months. This creates international recognition of the American Indian cause and gives birth to the contemporary Indian people’s movement. From Alcatraz, we follow John’s political journey as the national spokesman of the American Indian Movement (AIM).

During this tumultuous period, his work makes him one of the most highly politicalsubversives of the 1970’s, earning him one of the longest FBI files in history (more than 17,000 pages).