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TBR News January 11, 2016

Jan 11 2016

The Voice of the White House

Washington, D.C. , January 11, 2016: “I have been asked why we do not spend more coverage on the domestic political scene. My answer is that I strongly dislike swimming in a septic tank and current American politics is nothing but a reeking septic tank. With the execption of Donald Trump, hated by the liberal media, the candidates are as exciting as a bowl of Jello and about as significant. To run for public office now one must have a great deal of money. Elections are very expensive so a relatively poor candidate must seek “contributions” from the public in order to present his generally colorless and even more, worthless, persona to a bored public. And if money is given to him and he is successful, much is expected of him. Worthless though he (or she) might actually be, someone has bought and paid for them. Washington is a nothng but a congregation of the corrupt and the corruptible and listening to its inmates babble and chatter would lead me to suggest to them that they ought to have a proctologist look at that large hole under their nose.”

Conversations with the Crow

On October 8th, 2000, Robert Trumbull Crowley, once a leader of the CIA’s Clandestine Operations Division, died in a Washington hospital of heart failure and the end effects of Alzheimer’s Disease. Before the late Assistant Director Crowley was cold, Joseph Trento, a writer of light-weight books on the CIA, descended on Crowley’s widow at her town house on Cathedral Hill Drive in Washington and hauled away over fifty boxes of Crowley’s CIA files.

Once Trento had his new find secure in his house in Front Royal , Virginia, he called a well-known Washington fix lawyer with the news of his success in securing what the CIA had always considered to be a potential major embarrassment. Three months before, July 20th of that year, retired Marine Corps colonel William R. Corson, and an associate of Crowley, died of emphysema and lung cancer at a hospital in Bethesda, Md. After Corson’s death, Trento and his Washington lawyer went to Corson’s bank, got into his safe deposit box and removed a manuscript entitled ‘Zipper.’ This manuscript, which dealt with Crowley’s involvement in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, vanished into a CIA burn-bag and the matter was considered to be closed forever

After Crowley’s death and Trento’s raid on the Crowley files, huge gaps were subsequently discovered by horrified CIA officials and when Crowley’s friends mentioned Gregory Douglas, it was discovered that Crowley’s son had shipped two large boxes to Douglas. No one knew their contents but because Douglas was viewed as an uncontrollable loose cannon who had done considerable damage to the CIA’s reputation by his on-going publication of the history of Gestapo-Mueller, they bent every effort both to identify the missing files and make some effort to retrieve them before Douglas made any use of them.

Douglas had been in close contact with Crowley and had long phone conversatins with him. He found this so interesting and informative that he taped  and later transcribed them.

These conversations have been published in a book: ‘Conversations with the Crow” and this is an excerpt.



Conversation No. 70

Date: Thursday, February 27, 1997

Commenced: 6:15 PM CST

Concluded: 6:38 PM CST


RTC: Gregory? Have I interrupted your dinner?

GD: Not at all. I eat later, if I think about it that is. I thought you’d be in bed by now, Robert. A problem?

RTC: Actually, yes, there is…or might be. Do you have some time there?

GD: Sure. Not a problem.

RTC: It’s about that Atwood person we spoke of earlier. Remember the one? 

GD: Oh, yes, I do remember Atwood. Did old Critchfield off him?

RTC: No, not as I understand but there is unhappiness about Atwood’s proclivity to talk to the wrong people and you are certainly considered the wrong people. By Critchfield’s crowd. Jim does not like me any more over that Angolia business but one of our mutual friends was in touch with me yesterday about this and I thought I ought to discuss it with you. There are, or were, certain aspects to Atwood’s activities, both on and off the board, that there is some anxiety about. It’s known he had very dubious dealings with you six or seven years ago and you are considered to be a loose cannon. Atwood is considered to be a loose mouth and in my calling, that is not considered to be either wise or conducive of a long and happy life. Might I ask you what, if anything, Atwood discussed with you concerning his activities with the Company? Can you recall?

GD: My memory is very good, Robert, as you might have noticed.

RTC: I have. At times a great asset, Gregory, but at other times, a great liability. If you take my meaning?

GD: Oh, I do. Atwood? I got to know him while I was living in Munich in ’65. I was selling German militaria via the Shotgun News….

RTC: And that was….?

GD: Is. It’s a trade paper for gun and military collectors. In Hastings, Nebraska. I was a guest of Franzi von Otting and I used his name. Con premise and he got a percentage of the take. Anyway, Jimmy saw the advert and since he was in Germany, decided to look me up. He wrote and made an appointment and I met him in the lobby of the Vierjahrezeiten.

RTC: Pardon?

GD: A posh Munich hotel. He was staying there with two tarts. Bargirl types if you know what I mean. He was very polite and civil. Slight southern accent. Anyway, we had a long conversation about the collecting trade. Jimmy had written a book on Nazi daggers and was, as he admitted over a drink or two, having these made up in Solingen and selling them. He was making very good money and was highly ambitious. Made up Hermann Goering’s wedding sword and shoved it off on some stupid collector and, as I recall, Hitler’s suicide pistol. A Walther with ivory grips. Got it on the cover of Argosy magazine and sold it to another sucker in Canada. Anyway, we had a talk about creative selling and, as I recall, he was interested in my expertise on the historical aspects. I pointed out to him that in the picture of the alleged Hitler gun, the maker was Walther but their factory was in Ulm, not in what was now the DR. He laughed and said, as I remember, ‘well…you caught me….’ and on we went. I don’t drink very much but he certainly could put it away. And we went out to a restaurant and continued the talking. I learned a lot about him, the more he drank, but he learned nothing about me. Considering everything, that was just as well. I know he had a good opinion of me because in ’90 we went to Austria and dug up some buried Nazi concentration camp loot an SS general buried there in ’45.

RTC: And who might that have been?

GD: A Slovene named Globocnik. Had been the Gauleiter of Vienna until Hitler sacked him for stealing.

RTC: I was told about him. Not a nice person.

GD: No, but you used him after his faked suicide. The Brits sold him to you and you sent him down to Syria to help the rag heads.

RTC: Gregory, you are most interesting and informative. And I hope you are also discreet.

GD: Oh, I can be. Why the interest in Jimmy?

RTC: It has slowly dawned on certain exalted people that perhaps you might have gleaned some forbidden information about brother Atwood in the course of your wild career. Do go on

GD: Well, I don’t know what was, or is, forbidden, and what isn’t.

RTC: Why not just go on and let me be the judge of that. Please continue about Atwood.

GD: I will. Atwood was one of your people and was not only involved in merchandising and otherwise making a profit selling fake German militaria…

RTC: By German, you specifically mean Nazi, don’t you?

GD: Yes, of course. I’ll tell you about the market in a few minutes. Right now, I am going to fill you in on what I learned from James. I give you some background here on the very off chance that you know nothing about it. Since at least 1981 and probably earlier, there exists a worldwide network of ‘free-standing’, or especially and specifically. no direct U.S. government ties companies, including airlines, aviation and military spare parts suppliers, and trading companies, set up that  have been put to good use by the CIA and the U.S. government to illegally ship arms and military spare parts to Iran and to the Contras. And, of course, to smuggle people who can’t go by commercial airlines and, let us not forget, drugs

RTC: I rather wish you would forget about drugs. I don’t think brother Atwood was involved with drugs. Do go on.

GD: Yes. These companies were set up with the approval and knowledge of senior CIA officials and other senior U.S. government officials and staffed primarily by ex-CIA, ex-FBI and ex-military officers. I am correct here?

RTC: Yes. Go on.

GD: You will probably end up hating me if I do, Robert, but I note you asked me to continue.

RTC: I think I am above that, Gregory.

GD: OK. Now let’s look at the Iran Contra business. I know all about at least a part of this so we can go into it a little. Secord’s arms shipments, arraigned through the CIA, transferred weapons destined for Central America to Merex. This was known officially as Merex International Arms and was, and is, based in Savannah. The Merex address was occupied by Combat Military Ordinances Ltd., controlled by Jimmy Atwood. He had been in the Army in MI and then went to work for your people. James was involved in major arms trades with your sponsored international buyers, specifically Middle Eastern Arab states. Monzer Al-Kassar utilized the Merex firm for some of his weapons transactions with the Enterprise.   Now Merex was originally set up, after the war, by old Skorzeny co-worker, one Gerhard Mertins. Gerhard had been  a Hauptmann (captain to you, Robert) in the German paratroopers and got the Knight’s Cross in, I believe, ’45. After the war, Mertins went to work in Bonn and the Merex arms business was considered a CIA proprietary firm. Mertex was close to and worked with the BND, the German intelligence service evolved from the CIA-controlled Gehlen organization. Atwood was involved with Interarmco, run by Samuel Cummings, an Englishman who ran the largest arms firm in the world. Cummings died in Monaco because he had looted his CIA employers and found that principality safer than Warrenton, Virginia. Also connected with Atwood’s firm were Collector’s Armory, run by one Thomas Nelson, whose nickname was ‘Red Nelson’ because of his hair color, not his politics, and a George Petersen of Springfield, Virginia, and one Manny Wiegenberg, a Canadian arms dealer. Jimmy was heavily involved in your support of Canadian separatists and I know something of his role in supplying weapons and explosives to the Quebec Libré movement. The head of your Canada Desk was actively encouraging this group to split away from Canada. I know for a fact that your people do not want ever to mention this little historical aside.

RTC: No, we do not, Go on.

GD:Also, I know all about Atwood’s connections with Skorzeny and the IRA/Provo wing. I can give you chapter and verse on this one if you want it. One of Atwood’s Irish connections is the man who blew up Lord Louis Mountbatten in 1979 and I have a file on this as well in some safe and private place You might also be aware of the shipping of weapons into the southern Mexican provinces by Atwood and his Guatemala based consortium. Atwood had a number of ex-Gestapo and SD people on board, some of whom were wanted. I recall a former SS officer, Frederich Schwend who worked with your people and was down in Lima. Schwend had been trained by the OSS in the early 1940s after he had informed Allen Dulles that the German SS had hidden millions in gold, cash, and loot as the European war was winding down. Atwood knew about the Weissensee gold hoard that Müller told me about. Jimmy knew about it but I had the overlay so he courted me and we ended up, shovels in hand, in the beautiful mountains in ’90.

RTC: Thee are conflicting stories about that business. You murdered two British people as I understand it.

GD: No such thing, Robert. As I understand it, and I was there, they fell off the boat in the middle of the Caribbean. Such lies your people make up.

RTC: Well, there are always two sides to every story, Gregory. You are better than two cups of coffee, I must say. I think I ought to get some Pepto Bismol pretty soon. After the Treasure Island adventure, what happened next?

GD: To Atwood? Well, as Jimmy told me, about 1992, he and your Jimmy Critchfield, along with a Russian Jew, formed a partnership in order to obtain a number of obsolete Soviet atomic artillery shells which they then sold to the Pakistanis.  I think the two of them kept the money and no one ever saw the Jew again. If you don’t know this, I can tell you that both Critchfield and the Interarmco people had supplied weapons to the rebels in Afghanistan during their long and vicious guerrilla activities against the Soviet Union. Critchfield also worked with the Dalai Lama of Tibet in a guerrilla war against Communist China and headed a CIA task force during the Cuban missile crisis. He ran regional agency operations when the U.S. and the Soviets raced to secure satellites first in Eastern Europe, then in the Middle East. And note that in the early 1960s, Critchfield recommended to the CIA that the United States support the Baath Party, which staged a 1963 coup against the Iraqi government that the CIA believed was falling under Soviet influence. Critchfield later boasted, during the Iran-Iraq war that he and the CIA had created Saddam Hussein.

RTC: Gregory, where in the sweet hell did you get all of this?

GD: From Atwood when he was drunk.

RTC: You’ve just guaranteed that he will pass to his reward very soon. Does that bother you?

GD: I never liked him. He tried to rip me off once but he was so crude about it that I have no respect for him. Shall I go on?

RTC: I have approach-avoidance conflicts here, Gregory. You might as well ruin the rest of my evening. Proceed.

GD: Are you sure? You don’t sound too happy.

RTC: I am not but do go on.

GD: As you wish. When Arab oil became paramount, your Critchfield became your national intelligence officer for energy and was also an energy policy planner at the White House. He also fronted a dummy CIA corporation in the Middle East known as Basic Resources, which was used to gather OPEC-related intelligence for the Nixon administration. . Critchfield was the chief of the CIA’s Near East and South Asia division in the 1960s and a national intelligence officer for energy as the oil shortage crisis began in the early 1970s. Of course your people, along with the oil barons, forced the price of oil up and up. My, I wonder how much money you all made. Oh well, not important here. Critchfield retired in the mid ‘70s and ended up as both a consultant and the CEO of Tetra Tech International, a Honeywell Inc. subsidiary and which managed oil, gas, and water projects in the strategic Masandam Peninsula. This, in case your geography is weak, is located on the Strait of Hormuz, through which much of the West’s oil is transported. And at the same time, Critchfield was a primary adviser to the Sultan of Oman, focusing on Middle East energy resources, especially those in Oman.

RTC: I should never have asked you about this.

GD: The Bible says ask and ye shall receive.

RTC: Yes. We can forget the Bible here. It has no part in the intelligence business. You mentioned Merex. Do you know of other friendly assets?

GD: Surely, Try Aero Systems, Arrow Air, Global International, and how about Zenith?

RTC: Did you get these names from Atwood?

GD: Of course I did. I told you Jimmy was not discreet while he was drinking. I listened to his tales of self-importance and remembered it all. Oh, and I write it up as well.

RTC: Gregory, for the Lord God’s sake, if not mine, or more important, yours, do not discuss any of this with anyone else, your son or people like Willis Carto. If you aren’t careful, Critrchfield will have you eliminated. I shall have to warn him off on that topic but…I mean why would Atwood tell you such terrible things and if he told you, who else could he have told?

GD: One of his German whores, probably. Jimmy goes on and on.

RTC: So I note. And we can ring the curtain down on that one ASAP.

GD: From your reaction, Robert, I assume Jimmy was accurate.

RTC: No comment but Atwood is a dead man.

GD: Well, I might have gotten my insights from the back of a Wheaties’ box but Jimmy is a better candidate. Do you know why I dislike Jimmy and would frame his death notice? His wife stuck with him when he was arrested for tax evasion in smuggling in the ‘60s and as a mark of his appreciation, he deserted her and his two daughters to run off with one of his bar girls. The rest of his activities are one thing but I do not tolerate such domestic treachery. Do you think I’m being too critical?

RTC: What a question. Who cares about his wife and children? This man has gone way beyond the bounds. Way beyond. Of course I believe you. You could never have made all that up and I can assure you it was never in the New York Times. They might know some of it but they wouldn’t dare publish it. No, you got it from Atwood or someone connected with him. Ah, well, I did ask and I did receive. They hate you Gregory, they hate you with a passion but at the same time, they are scared shitless of you. They would have killed you some time ago but others counseled them against it. Who knows what you put down on paper? If you were run over by a truck in the middle of a shopping mall or attacked and eaten by a leopard in your own living room, who knows what might find its way out of some hiding hole and into the public? The public is happy with its football games and beer so we had best not disturb them with such stories.

GD: They might make a good movie out of all this.

RTC: Never, Gregory, I can promise you that. A studio that even considered this would be bankrupt within a few months. No, none of this will ever see the light of day and if you want to continue walking around, remember that silence is golden.

GD: I have no problem with gold. Just think of all that looted concentration camp gold Jimmy and I dug up.

RTC: Yes and I understand you cheated him out of his share.

GD: When thieves fall out, Robert, honest men prosper.

RTC: Meaning no disrespect but do you consider yourself to be an honest man? GD: Selectively, Robert, selectively. And Jimmy?

RTC: Don’t make book on his seeing Christmas.


(Concluded at 6:38 PM CST)


Detroit’s auto industry is changed, but not as Washington planned

January 11, 2016 

by David Shepardson and Paul Ingrassia


DETROIT- When U.S. President Barack Obama visits Detroit’s annual auto show on Jan. 20, exactly one year before he leaves office, he is expected to tout how much the industry has changed since he orchestrated a federally funded rescue in 2009. 

But many of the changes on display at the city’s annual auto show will not reflect the green-transport revival the president envisioned.

“We said the auto industry would have to truly change, not just pretend that it did,” the president said Saturday in a weekly radio address devoted to Detroit.

The ‘Detroit Three’ automakers racked up record sales and profits in the U.S. market last year not because of electric cars or plug-in hybrids, but because of soaring demand for pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles fueled by gasoline prices that hit multi-year lows.

At General Motors Co (GM.N), the focal point of Detroit’s bailout, pickups and SUVs accounted for nearly 70 percent of last year’s sales. In 2016 one of the SUVs GM sells in America – – the Buick Envision – will be, for the first time, imported from China, to the chagrin of the United Auto Workers union, a key Obama constituency.

With oil prices expected to stay low for some time, all the major automakers are looking for a bigger slice of U.S. truck market profits.

Nissan Motor Co (7201.T) and Honda Motor Co (7267.T) are using auto show press previews on Monday to promote new versions of their full-size pickups, the Titan and the Ridgeline, respectively. 

The big splash from bailout beneficiary Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCHA.MI) is not a small car, but a sleeker, updated minivan, which comes in a plug-in hybrid version and a powerful gasoline model more people are likely to buy. There are also new luxury vehicles to be unveiled: a revamped Lincoln Continental is expected from Ford Motor Co (F.N) and Hyundai Motor Co’s (005380.KS) new flagship luxury sedan, the G90.

Obama has made boosting fuel efficiency a cornerstone of his energy and climate policy. Mandates from California and other states are prodding automakers to continue rolling out zero emission electric vehicles, such as GM’s Chevrolet Bolt, even if sales remain slow.

In his 2011 State of the Union Address, Obama renewed a call he made as a candidate in 2008 to get 1 million plug-in electric vehicles (EVs) on the road by 2015. But sales have been far slower than expected – only about 490,000 vehicles, including 115,000 in 2015, down 6 percent from 2014. Automakers have been forced to cut EV prices and sales forecasts.

The next president will decide the fate of Obama’s goal of boosting average fuel efficiency to 54.5 miles per gallon (23.2 km per liter) by 2025. A decision on whether the final 2021-2025 regulations are feasible is due by April 2018, under a new president.

The average fuel economy of new vehicles sold in the United States has improved over the past few years, standing at 24.9 mpg in December. It is down 0.9 mpg from the peak reached in August 2014, but still up 4.8 mpg since October 2007.

Ford will unveil a revamped Fusion midsize car at the Detroit show that symbolizes automakers’ efforts to meet very different regulatory and market demands. The 2017 Fusion will have a plug-in hybrid model, with a new Platinum luxury package available, and a Sport model with a 325-horsepower twin-turbo powered engine more potent than a BMW 3340.

The auto show also will lay bare another juggling act for Detroit. While the U.S. automakers still make most of their money from big ‘body-on-frame’ vehicles powered by gasoline, just as they did 60 years ago, they are cruising into a high-tech world of connected cars that ultimately will lead to self-driving, or ‘autonomous’ vehicles powered by batteries.

The contrast will be stark between last week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where autonomous driving took center stage as GM and Ford announced new high-tech initiatives, and the display of traditional heavy metal in Detroit. But even in the Motor City, the high-tech future of mobility will not be completely ignored.

The new Mercedes-Benz E-Class from German automaker Daimler AG (DAIGn.DE) will offer so many advanced driver assistance technologies that with just a few software changes the car could be allowed to drive itself hands-free, company executives have said.

The difference between the new E-class and Tesla Motors Inc’s (TSLA.O) electric Model S is that Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk is willing to allow extended hands-free driving, albeit with more limitations as of Sunday than before, and Mercedes executives are not.

Forecasts for the widespread adoption of autonomous cars range between five and 20 years away. But their advent could lead to a fresh crisis for traditional automakers and their employees, Barclays auto analyst Brian Johnson said Sunday at an automotive event.

If self-driving, shared cars become the norm, he said, that could mean 60 percent fewer vehicles on the road, and a one-third reduction in the number of auto-assembly plants by 2025 or 2030.

(Reporting By Paul Ingrassia and David Shepardson; Editing by Bill Rigby)


Washington lining up House of Saud for the chop?

January 10, 2016

by Finian Cunningham


The brittle insecurity of the Saudi rulers will have been shattered even more this past week, with Washington’s political establishment openly calling into question the historic alliance between the two countries.

Saudi Arabia was denounced in the main editorial pages of both the New York Times and the Washington Post – the US’ two leading newspapers – for its “dangerous sectarian policies” and “reckless regime.” This extraordinary outpouring of condemnation followed the execution of a Shiite cleric last weekend. The Washington Post described the state killing of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimir as “a step that was as risky and ruthless as it was unjustified.”

For the autocratic House of Saud such rare criticism from the United States will intensify its already brittle insecurity over its hold on power in the kingdom.

The Saudis may have acquired their modern state from British colonialism in 1932, but it is the patronage of the United States upon which the autocratic rulers of the oil-rich desert kingdom have relied for their continuing existence ever since.

That patronage is now coming under sharp scrutiny in the wake of regional tensions sparked by Saudi Arabia’s execution of Sheikh Nimr. The Middle East’s Shiite power Iran reacted furiously to the execution, setting off Arab allies of Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia to cut diplomatic ties with Tehran.

The burst of incendiary actions has led top opinion-makers in Washington to some radical conclusions regarding Saudi Arabia and its role as a US ally in the strategically vital region.

In a lead editorial, the NY Times openly accused the Saudis of “barbarity” and of “actions that blatantly fan sectarian hatreds, undermine efforts at stabilizing the region and crudely violate human rights.”

In a Times’ opinion piece, Toby Craig Jones, a professor at Rutgers University, castigated the Saudi rulers for having “embraced sectarianism” adding, “it should also be clarifying for those who believe that Saudi Arabia is a force for stability in the Middle East. It is not.”

The Post’s influential editorialist David Ignatius expressed frustration with American indulgence of Saudi rulers. He wrote: “Saudi Arabia’s insecurities have been a driver of conflict for 40 years.”

Moreover – and this is a searing admission by the American establishment – Ignatius accused the Saudi elite of “bankrolling Al-Qaeda’s founders and Syrian warlords.”

Back at the Times, a news analysis piece by David Sanger revealed this nugget on the decades-old US-Saudi relationship: “The United States has usually looked the other way or issued carefully calibrated warnings in human rights reports as the Saudi royal family cracked down on dissent and free speech and allowed its elite to fund Islamic extremists. In return, Saudi Arabia became America’s most dependable filling station, a regular supplier of intelligence, and a valuable counterweight to Iran.”

Hold it right there. The United States, we are told, has allowed the Saudi elite to “fund Islamic terrorists” in a tawdry trade-off for self-interests, principally the supply of oil. This is something that much of the world has long suspected, but now the two main newspapers of the US are openly saying it.

While the Obama administration did not publicly condemn the Saudi execution of Sheikh Nimr, it was reported that senior officials were angry at the House of Saud for ignoring back-channel advice to rescind the death sentence.

That the New York Times and the Washington Post are now calling into question the relationship with the kingdom shows that there is a top-level debate within the American political establishment about the bilateral relationship.

What is motivating Washington’s growing impatience with the Saudis is that the regional instability is jeopardizing US diplomatic efforts to launch a political process in Syria, whereby the Obama administration is trying to engineer its long-held goal of achieving regime change in the Arab country. The political talks are due to begin later this month in Geneva and involve the participation of Russia and Iran, as well as the Saudis.

It is clear that Washington wants the talks on Syria to be a framework that will lead to the eventual ouster of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Both Russia and Iran maintain that the fate of Assad is the prerogative of the Syrian people.

However, the “reckless” Saudi regime is evidently jeopardizing Washington’s carefully cultivated political project by inflaming regional tensions, and in particular by antagonizing Iran – a key ally of Assad’s Syria.

So, is Washington shifting towards a fundamental realignment towards Saudi Arabia?

As the New York Times noted: “For years it was oil that provided the glue for a relationship between two nations that share few common values… Today, with American oil production surging and the Saudi leadership fractured, the mutual dependency that goes back to the early 1930s, with the first American investment in the kingdom’s oil fields, no longer binds the nations as it once did.”

The idea of Washington no longer patronizing the Saudi rulers is tantalizing, but it is rather naive. For such a notion fails to understand the deep, essential dependence of American global power on the Saudi regime.

On the issue of oil, it is not merely the supply of the black stuff. More importantly it is the petrodollar system by which global oil trade is conducted. When US President Franklin D Roosevelt held his landmark summit with Saudi’s founding monarch, Ibn Saud, in early 1945 the two leaders set in motion the petrodollar arrangement by which the soon-to-be world’s top oil producer would sell in perpetuity the commodity denominated only in the US dollar.

For the next seven decades, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf Sunni Arab oil kingdoms have helped maintain the petrodollar system. Without this system, the US currency would cease to be the world’s reserve currency. Without that status, the US would collapse in bankruptcy.

Although Saudi Arabia’s position as oil supplier to the US may have waned in recent years, it and the other Gulf oil sheikhdoms are nonetheless crucial to propping up the petrodollar system. If Saudi Arabia were, for argument’s sake, to start trading in Chinese yuan or the euro that would doom the dollar. In short, the US is beholden to the Saudi regime for its financial and economic survival.

Another vital factor is weapons sales. Last year alone, the US sold some $20 billion in arms to Saudi Arabia – or about 12.5 percent of its global weapons exports.

Perhaps topping the list is “deterring democracy” to use the phrase coined by American writer Noam Chomsky. Despite pretensions of upholding democratic values and human rights, in the real world US foreign policy operates to suppress democracy in order to make the world “safe” for American capital and exploitation of natural resources.

Washington has not merely turned a blind eye to Saudi despotism over the past seven decades, it has relied on it for the suppression of democratic movements in the oil-rich Middle East. In that way, the House of Saud is the other side of the American coin to the Zionist regime in Israel. Both are fundamental to American hegemony.

The US ruling class might be vexed with the despotic House of Saud for stoking regional tensions and in particular for throwing sand in the wheels of its political schemes for regime change in Syria. But the relationship with Saudi Arabia’s absolutist, head-chopping regime means that Washington can’t afford to ever give it the chop.


Hackers used malware to confuse utility in Ukraine outage – report

January 9, 2016

by Jim Finkle


Hackers likely caused a Dec. 23 electricity outage in Ukraine by remotely switching breakers to cut power, after installing malware to prevent technicians from detecting the attack, according to a report analyzing how the incident unfolded.

The report from Washington-based SANS ICS was released late on Saturday, providing the first detailed analysis of what caused a six-hour outage for some 80,000 customers of Western Ukraine’s Prykarpattyaoblenergo utility.

SANS ICS, which advises infrastructure operators on combating cyber attacks, also said the attackers crippled the utility’s customer-service center by flooding it with phone calls to prevent customers from alerting the utility that power was down.

“This was a multi-pronged attack against multiple facilities. It was highly coordinated with very professional logistics,” said Robert Lee, a former U.S. Air Force cyber warfare operations officer who helped compile the report for SANS ICS. “They sort of blinded them in every way possible.”

Experts widely describe the incident as the first known power outage caused by a cyber attack. Ukraine’s SBU state security service blamed Russia, and U.S. cyber firm iSight Partners identified the perpetrator as a Russian hacking group known as “Sandworm.”

Ukraine’s energy ministry has said it will hold off on discussing the matter until after Jan. 18, following completion of a formal probe into the matter.

The utility’s operators were able to quickly recover by switching to manual operations, essentially disconnecting infected workstations and servers from the grid, according to the report.

SANS ICS said on its blog it had “high confidence” in its findings, which were based on discussions and analysis from “multiple international community members and companies”. (https://ics.sans.org/blog) The report’s authors declined to identify those sources.

U.S. critical infrastructure security expert Joe Weiss said he believed the report’s findings would be validated. “They did a phenomenal job,” he said.

There is strong interest in the outage because of concerns that similar techniques could be used to launch more attacks on power operators around the globe.

“What is now true is that a coordinated cyber attack consisting of multiple elements is one of the expected hazards (electric utilities) may face,” SANS ICS Director Michael Assante said in a blog.

“We need to learn and prepare ourselves to detect, respond, and restore from such events in the future,” said Assante, former chief security officer of the quasi-governmental North American Electric Reliability Corp.

(Reporting by Jim Finkle in Boston; Editing by James Dalgleish)


Why the War Party Dominates the Media: Realism vs. reality: understanding why we never seem to learn from mistakes

January 11, 2016

by Justin Raimondo,


Stephen Walt has an excellent albeit incomplete piece in Foreign Policy magazine that raises an important question: What accounts for the lack of anti-interventionist voices in the “mainstream” media?

Walt uses the term “realist” as a synonym for anti-interventionist, in part because Foreign Policy is a quasi-academic journal, and in part because Walt is one of the leading advocates of the realist school, i.e. the school that sees foreign policy as a function of states vying for power in a world where good intentions don’t account for much. “Realism,” of course, is a very broad label, one that includes figures as disparate as Henry Kissinger, one the one hand, and, Andrew Bacevich on the other. In short, it is not so much a stance as a methodology – a way of looking at the world from which one can derive a variety of different policy conclusions. Given this caveat, however, one can say that the realist school is inherently more cautious than its rivals – liberal internationalism and neoconservatism – when it comes intervening in foreign conflicts.

In any case, Walt’s piece details the realist record when it comes to the issues of the past decade or so and draws the inevitable conclusion: they’ve been right about practically everything. Realists warned us [.pdf] against the folly of invading Iraq. They predicted [.pdf] that nation-building in Afghanistan would come to naught. George Kennan, perhaps the quintessential realist, inveighed against the post-cold war push to expand NATO, accurately predicting that it would lead to unnecessary conflict with Russia and the renewed threat of World War III. Critics of the Clinton era policy of “dual containment” in the Middle East – which sought to take on both Iran and Iraq simultaneously – were right that it would result in failure: one has only to look at the turmoil in the region today to see how people like Brent Scowcroft should have been heeded. The realists were correct once again when they said the Libyan “humanitarian intervention” was a) doomed to fail and b) completely phony because there never was a viable threat of “genocide” – it was all war propaganda from start to finish.

So, realists have a great record when it comes to predicting what would happen if we followed the advice of the Usual Suspects, and why it would happen. Yet they are nowhere visible in the Major Media, which employs platoons of neocon laptop bombardiers and cruise-missile liberals without a single regular spokesperson representing the realist view – the view, by the way, most favored by the American people.

Indeed, the War Party dominates the three major media outlets in the English-speaking print world, and on television as well. As far as the former is concerned, the War Street Journal is dominated by the neocons. At the New York Times, liberal internationalists – Thomas Friedman, Nicholas Kristof, and Roger Cohen – reign unchallenged. The Washington Post is the worst: there the editorial director, Fred Hiatt, is an unabashed warmonger, with the rest of the crew – Charles Krauthammer, Robert Kagan, Jackson Diehl, Marc Thiessen, Michael Gerson, Jennifer Rubin – dyed-in-the-wool neocons.

After pointing out this ideological imbalance, which is replicated in the world of television, Walt wonders how and why it came to be:

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with giving these writers a prominent platform, and many of the people I just mentioned are worth reading. What is bizarre is the absence of anyone presenting a more straightforward realist view of contemporary world politics….

Why are these three elite outlets so allergic to realist views, given that realists have been (mostly) right about some very important issues, and the columnists they publish have often been wrong? I don’t really know, but I suspect it is because contemporary foreign-policy punditry is mostly about indulging hopes and promoting ideals, rather than providing hardheaded thinking about which policies are most likely to make the United States more prosperous and more secure. And because the United States is already so strong and safe, it can afford to pursue unrealistic goals again and again and let the unfortunate victims of our good intentions suffer the consequences.” [Emphasis added]

Walt is right: he doesn’t really know. “Indulging hopes and promoting ideals” has nothing to do with it, at least as far as the ideologues of the War Party are concerned. The rank-and-file, such as they are, may be a different matter, but in reality there are very few of them: the interventionist lobby is top-heavy with generals as compared to foot-soldiers. That’s why there are very few pro-war rallies – except when, say, the American Enterprise Institute sponsors a get together.

That’s because the American people are naturally “isolationists,” that is they are usually reluctant to go along with the War Party’s schemes to invade this or that country.  This is true not only because they have little interest in what goes on overseas, but also because they’re skeptical of our ability to affect events – not to mention that we have so many persistent problems here at home. Yet this is a “silent majority” that has little or no influence in policymaking and top political circles.

On the other hand, there are interest groups who profit enormously from interventionism, and/or who have ideological motives for promoting a policy of US intervention on a global scale – and they have an outsized influence on these power centers precisely because they are not silent. Not by a long shot.

Walt is correct to say that realist analyses have been correct on all the counts listed above, but the reality is that the success or failure of interventionist policies on the ground has little to do with subsequent policies pursued by governments. These policies are generated not by lessons learned from previous experience but by internal political factors.

The realist analysis of foreign policy holds that nations are motivated by their self-interest, or more accurately by what they perceive to be their self-interest. Yet nations are not floating abstractions or collective entities: they are ruled by individuals, and these individuals also obey the same laws – that is, they act in ways they imagine to be in their self-interest. And what does this self-interest consist of? It is nothing more or less than the continuation and expansion of their power.

In order to accomplish this goal, they must appease powerful domestic interest groups, and in the US these groups are well-known: Big Business, including especially investment banks who often have a financial stake in the “stability” (or instability) of certain governments, foreign lobbyists – the Israel lobby and the Saudi lobby being prominent examples – and immigrant populations from war-torn regions of the world, who often work assiduously for the “liberation” of the mother country by US force of arms. The arms industry plays a major role as a motivator and financier of interventionist organizations: they have an obvious interest in promoting America’s role as the military guardian of “world order,” not to mention such boondoggles as NATO expansion.

In short, the “realists” only go so far: they fail to project their own basic assumption – that nations are motivated by a desire to keep and accumulate power – onto the domestic political scene, and bring it down to the micro level. It therefore often looks like realists see the dynamics of international relations as some kind of objective process, one that unfolds out of the realities of geography, national temperament, and the alleged laws of History.

True realism – of the most hardheaded sort – dictates that subjective factors (the ambitions, the vanity, and the moral failings of individuals) are the key to understanding what is happening on the world stage.

Furthermore, there is no such realm of “foreign policy” that can be separated out in any meaningful way from domestic politics: it is all one and the same. That’s because no government – be it a democracy or a dictatorship – can continue in office without at least the passive consent of the populace. And ruling elites are always seeking to shore up their support, and delay the day when they must accede to successors.

The role “foreign policy” plays in all this was summed up in the fourth act of Shakespeare’s Henry IV. The king is on his death bed, giving advice to his son, and he proffers this pearl of wisdom, advice that has been followed by rulers well before and after the great playwright’s time:

I … had a purpose now

To lead out many to the Holy Land,

Lest rest and lying still might make them look Too near unto my state. Therefore, my Harry, Be it thy course, to busy giddy minds

With foreign quarrels; that action, hence borne out, May waste the memory of the former days.

It was ever thus, and so it will ever be.

How does all this play out in the media? The American and British media have long been merely an extension of their respective governments: the revolving door that operates between media and the State is beyond dispute. They socialize together, their kids go to the same schools, they marry each other, and – most importantly – they are both infused with the hubris endemic in Washington and the capitals of Europe, the idea that they have the knowledge and the moral authority to define and enforce the parameters of “world order.” The media is called the “Fourth Estate” for a very good reason – because they are very often part and parcel of the political class. Their function is to reinforce the narrative set out by government officials, and crush any dissent that arises in the hinterlands, and this role has been accentuated in recent times as the gap between ordinary people and the Washington-New York axis of affluence grows ever wider.

The financial, personal, and ideological links between the State and the Fourth Estate are myriad and expanding: they are all part of the same culture of imperialism that flourishes in the power centers of this country.

So don’t wonder why advocates of peace can’t find a niche in the “mainstream” media: the answer should be obvious enough. The solution is to build alternative media that can challenge the interventionist narrative and win the battle for public opinion.


The new way police are surveilling you: Calculating your threat ‘score

January 10, 201

by Justin Jouvenal

Washington Post

FRESNO, Calif. — While officers raced to a recent 911 call about a man threatening his ex-girlfriend, a police operator in headquarters consulted software that scored the suspect’s potential for violence the way a bank might run a credit report.

The program scoured billions of data points, including arrest reports, property records, commercial databases, deep Web searches and the man’s social- media postings. It calculated his threat level as the highest of three color-coded scores: a bright red warning.

The man had a firearm conviction and gang associations, so out of caution police called a negotiator. The suspect surrendered, and police said the intelligence helped them make the right call — it turned out he had a gun.

As a national debate has played out over mass surveillance by the National Security Agency, a new generation of technology such as the Beware software being used in Fresno has given local law enforcement officers unprecedented power to peer into the lives of citizens.

Police officials say such tools can provide critical information that can help uncover terrorists or thwart mass shootings, ensure the safety of officers and the public, find suspects, and crack open cases. They say that last year’s attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., have only underscored the need for such measures.

But the powerful systems also have become flash points for civil libertarians and activists, who say they represent a troubling intrusion on privacy, have been deployed with little public oversight and have potential for abuse or error. Some say laws are needed to protect the public.

In many instances, people have been unaware that the police around them are sweeping up information, and that has spawned controversy. Planes outfitted with cameras filmed protests and unrest in Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo. For years, dozens of departments used devices that can hoover up all cellphone data in an area without search warrants. Authorities in Oregon are facing a federal probe after using social media-monitoring software to keep tabs on Black Lives Matter hashtags.

This is something that’s been building since September 11,” said Jennifer Lynch, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “First funding went to the military to develop this technology, and now it has come back to domestic law enforcement. It’s the perfect storm of cheaper and easier-to-use technologies and money from state and federal governments to purchase it.”

Few departments will discuss how — or sometimes if — they are using these tools, but the Fresno police offered a rare glimpse inside a cutting-edge $600,000 nerve center, even as a debate raged in the city over its technology.

An arsenal of high-tech tools

Fresno’s Real Time Crime Center is the type of facility that has become the model for high-tech policing nationwide. Similar centers have opened in New York, Houston and Seattle over the past decade.

Fresno’s futuristic control room, which operates around the clock, sits deep in its headquarters and brings together a handful of technologies that allow the department to see, analyze and respond to incidents as they unfold across this city of more than 500,000 in the San Joaquin Valley.

On a recent Monday afternoon, the center was a hive of activity. The police radio crackled over loudspeakers — “subject armed with steel rod” — as five operators sat behind banks of screens dialing up a wealth of information to help units respond to the more than 1,200 911 calls the department receives every day.

On 57 monitors that cover the walls of the center, operators zoomed and panned an array of roughly 200 police cameras perched across the city. They could dial up 800 more feeds from the city’s schools and traffic cameras, and they soon hope to add 400 more streams from cameras worn on officers’ bodies and from thousands from local businesses that have surveillance systems.

The cameras were only one tool at the ready. Officers could trawl a private database that has recorded more than 2 billion scans of vehicle licenses plates and locations nationwide. If gunshots were fired, a system called ShotSpotter could triangulate the location using microphones strung around the city. Another program, called Media Sonar, crawled social media looking for illicit activity. Police used it to monitor individuals, threats to schools and hashtags related to gangs.

Fresno police said having the ability to access all that information in real time is crucial to solving crimes.

They recently used the cameras to track a robbery suspect as he fled a business and then jumped into a canal to hide. He was quickly apprehended.

The license plate database was instrumental in solving a September murder case, in which police had a description of a suspect’s vehicle and three numbers from the license plate.

But perhaps the most controversial and revealing technology is the threat-scoring software Beware. Fresno is one of the first departments in the nation to test the program.

As officers respond to calls, Beware automatically runs the address. The searches return the names of residents and scans them against a range of publicly available data to generate a color-coded threat level for each person or address: green, yellow or red.

Exactly how Beware calculates threat scores is something that its maker, Intrado, considers a trade secret, so it is unclear how much weight is given to a misdemeanor, felony or threatening comment on Facebook. However, the program flags issues and provides a report to the user.

In promotional materials, Intrado writes that Beware could reveal that the resident of a particular address was a war veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, had criminal convictions for assault and had posted worrisome messages about his battle experiences on social media. The “big data” that has transformed marketing and other industries has now come to law enforcement.

Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer said officers are often working on scant or even inaccurate information when they respond to calls, so Beware and the Real Time Crime Center give them a sense of what may be behind the next door.

Our officers are expected to know the unknown and see the unseen,” Dyer said. “They are making split-second decisions based on limited facts. The more you can provide in terms of intelligence and video, the more safely you can respond to calls.”

But some in Fresno say the power and the sheer concentration of surveillance in the Real Time Crime Center is troubling. The concerns have been raised elsewhere as well — last year, Oakland city officials scaled back plans for such a center after residents protested, citing privacy concerns.

Rob Nabarro, a Fresno civil rights lawyer, said he is particularly concerned about Beware. He said outsourcing decisions about the threat posed by an individual to software is a problem waiting to happen.

Nabarro said the fact that only Intrado — not the police or the public — knows how Beware tallies its scores is disconcerting. He also worries that the system might mistakenly increase someone’s threat level by misinterpreting innocuous activity on social media, like criticizing the police, and trigger a heavier response by officers.

It’s a very unrefined, gross technique,” Nabarro said of Beware’s color-coded levels. “A police call is something that can be very dangerous for a citizen.”

Dyer said such concerns are overblown, saying the scores don’t trigger a particular police response. He said operators use them as guides to delve more deeply into someone’s background, looking for information that might be relevant to an officer on scene. He said officers on the street never see the scores.

Still, Nabarro is not the only one worried.

The Fresno City Council called a hearing on Beware in November after constituents raised concerns. Once council member referred to a local media report saying that a woman’s threat level was elevated because she was tweeting about a card game titled “Rage,” which could be a keyword in Beware’s assessment of social media.

Councilman Clinton J. Olivier, a libertarian-leaning Republican, said Beware was like something out of a dystopian science fiction novel and asked Dyer a simple question: “Could you run my threat level now?”

Dyer agreed. The scan returned Olivier as a green, but his home came back as a yellow, possibly because of someone who previously lived at his address, a police official said.

Even though it’s not me that’s the yellow guy, your officers are going to treat whoever comes out of that house in his boxer shorts as the yellow guy,” Olivier said. “That may not be fair to me.”

He added later: “[Beware] has failed right here with a council member as the example.”

An Intrado representative responded to an interview request seeking more information about how Beware works by sending a short statement. It read in part: “Beware works to quickly provide [officers] with commercially available, public information that may be relevant to the situation and may give them a greater level of awareness.”

Calls for ‘meaningful debate’

Similar debates over police surveillance have been playing out across the country, as new technologies have proliferated and law enforcement use has exploded.

The number of local police departments that employ some type of technological surveillance increased from 20 percent in 1997 to more than 90 percent in 2013, according to the latest information from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The most common forms of surveillance are cameras and automated license plate readers, but the use of handheld biometric scanners, social media monitoring software, devices that collect cellphone data and drones is increasing.

Locally, the American Civil Liberties Union reports that police in the District, Baltimore, and Montgomery and Fairfax counties have cellphone-data collectors, called cell site simulators or StingRays. D.C. police are also using ShotSpotter and license plate readers.

The surveillance creates vast amounts of data, which is increasingly pooled in local, regional and national databases. The largest such project is the FBI’s $1 billion Next Generation Identification project, which is creating a trove of fingerprints, iris scans, data from facial recognition software and other sources that aid local departments in identifying suspects.

Law enforcement officials say such tools allow them to do more with less, and they have credited the technology with providing breaks in many cases. Virginia State Police found the man who killed a TV news crew during a live broadcast last year after his license plate was captured by a reader.

Cell site simulators, which mimic a cellphone tower and scoop up data on all cellphones in an area, have been instrumental in finding kidnappers, fugitives and people who are suicidal, law enforcement officials said.

But those benefits have sometimes come with a cost to privacy. Law enforcement used cell site simulators for years without getting a judge’s explicit consent. But following criticism by the ACLU and other groups, the Justice Department announced last September that it would require all federal agencies to get a search warrant.

The fact that public discussion of surveillance technologies is occurring after they are in use is backward, said Matt Cagle, an attorney for the ACLU of Northern California.

We think that whenever these surveillance technologies are on the table, there needs to be a meaningful debate,” Cagle said. “There needs to be safeguards and oversight.”

After the contentious hearing before the Fresno City Council on Beware, Dyer said he now wants to make changes to address residents’ concerns. The police chief said he is working with Intrado to turn off Beware’s color-coded rating system and possibly the social media monitoring.

“There’s a balancing act,” Dyer said.


A group of Pakistanis and a Syrian national have been attacked in the German city of Cologne.

The assaults follow dozens of reports of sexual assault on New Year’s Eve, mostly by men of North African or Arab origin.

January 11, 2016


According to police in the western German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, a group of about 20 people attacked six Pakistanis on Sunday evening, near Cologne’s central train station. Two of the victims were reportedly taken to hospital.

Shortly after the first attack, a similar incident unfolded when a 39-year-old Syrian national was assaulted by a group of five people. Police said they were investigating grievous bodily harm, but could not confirm whether either of the attacks was racially motivated. It was also not initially clear whether the two were linked.

‘Human hunt’

Cologne tabloid “Express” reported on Monday that a group of “bikers, hooligans and bouncers” had used Facebook to plan a “human hunt” to “clean up” Cologne’s city center. Early on Monday, a police spokesperson was unable to confirm the reports.

On Sunday afternoon, police had received tipoffs about “groups,” which were “specifically looking for provocation,” police said. Officers were deployed in the city center and Cologne’s “Altstadt” quarter in large numbers. As the result of several identity checks, four people were briefly detained, reported a police spokesman. Whether they were among the attackers is yet to be determined. Two people also faced criminal charges.

Refugee policy in the spotlight

Police said on Sunday that they had now received 516 reports of mass sexual assaults and thefts at Cologne’s New Year’s Eve celebrations. Witnesses at city’s main train station and cathedral described women being groped, as well as subjected to lewd insults and robbery. In one instance, a rape was reported.

Most of the culprits were said to have been of a North African or Middle Eastern appearance. The reports have fueled criticism of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open door policy on refugees and migrants, with some 1.1 million new asylum seekers registered in the last year alone.

ksb/se (AFP, Reuters, dpa)


Ted Cruz’s Stone-Age Brain and Yours: Why “Collateral Damage” Elicits So Little Empathy Among Americans

by Rick Shenkman


After Senator Ted Cruz suggested that the United States begin carpet bombing Islamic State (IS) forces in Syria, the reaction was swift. Hillary Clinton mocked candidates who use “bluster and bigotry.” Jeb Bush insisted the idea was “foolish.”  Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, tweeted: “You can’t carpet bomb an insurgency out of existence. This is just silly.”

When CNN’s Wolf Blitzer objected that Cruz’s proposal would lead to lots of civilian casualties, the senator retorted somewhat incoherently: “You would carpet bomb where ISIS is — not a city, but the location of the troops. You use air power directed — and you have embedded special forces to direction the air power. But the object isn’t to level a city. The object is to kill the ISIS terrorists.” PolitiFact drily noted that Cruz apparently didn’t understand what the process of carpet (or “saturation”) bombing entails. By definition, it means bombing a wide area regardless of the human cost.

By almost any standard Cruz’s proposal was laughable and his rivals and the media called him on it. What happened next? By all rights after such a mixture of inanity and ruthlessness, not to say bloody-mindedness against civilian populations, his poll numbers should have begun to sag. After all, he’d just flunked the commander-in-chief test and what might have seemed like a test of his humanity as well. In fact, his poll numbers actually crept up. The week before the imbroglio, an ABC opinion poll had registered him at 15% nationally. By the following week, he was up to 18% and one poll even had him at a resounding 24%.

How to explain this? While many factors can affect a candidate’s polling numbers, one uncomfortable conclusion can’t be overlooked when it comes to reactions to Cruz’s comments: by and large, Americans don’t think or care much about the real-world consequences of the unleashing of American air power or that of our allies. The other day, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that, in September and October, a Saudi Arabian coalition backed by the United States “carried out at least six apparently unlawful airstrikes in residential areas of the [Yemeni] capital,” Sana’a.  The attacks resulted in the deaths of 60 civilians. Just about no one in the United States took notice, nor was it given significant media coverage.  More than likely, this is the first time you’ve heard about the HRW findings.

You might think that this is because the conflict in Yemen is off our national radar screen.  But how much attention have Americans paid to U.S. air strikes and bombing runs in Iraq?  Washington has literally been bombing Iraq on and off for twelve years and yet few have taken much notice.  That helps explain why bombing is such an attractive option for Washington any time trouble breaks out in the world.  Americans don’t seem to care much what goes on when our bombs or missiles hit the ground.  As pollsters found recently, a surprising number of Americans even want to bomb places that can’t be found on a map. When Public Policy Polling asked GOP voters in mid-December if they favored bombing Agrabah, 30% said they did (as did 19% of Democrats), while only 13% opposed the idea.  Agrabah is the fictional city featured in the Disney movie Aladdin.

Would you support or oppose bombing Agrabah?

Support bombing Agrabah…………………….. 30%

Oppose bombing Agrabah……………………… 13%

Not sure………………………………………………… 57%

That 57% were “not sure” might be considered at least modestly (but not wildly) reassuring.

Why Cruz’s Numbers Went Up

History suggests that this blanket bloodthirstiness or at least lack of empathy for those on the other end of America’s bombing campaigns isn’t new. In March 1951, nine months into the Korean War, Freda Kirchwey, a crusading liberal journalist at the Nation, expressed bewilderment at American indifference to the fate of Korean civilians killed by our bombs. The destruction was awful.  Little was left standing, structurally speaking, in North Korea.  Nothing, she complained in a column, “excuses the terrible shambles created up and down the Korean peninsula by the American-led forces, by American planes raining down napalm and fire bombs, and by heavy land and naval artillery.” And yet few seemed bothered by it.

Because she was an optimist Kirchwey expressed the hope that Americans would eventually come to share her own moral anguish at what was being done in their name.  They never did.  If anything, the longer the war ground on, the less Americans seemed interested in the fate of the victims of our bombing.

Why did they show so little empathy?  Science helps provide us with an answer and it’s a disturbing one: empathy grows harder as distances — whether of status, geography, or both — increase.  Think of it as a matter of our Stone Age brains.  It’s hard because in many circumstances an empathic response is, in fact, an unnatural act.  It is not natural, it turns out, for us to feel empathy for those who look different and speak a different language.  It is not natural for us to empathize with those who are invisible to us, as most bombing victims were and are.  Nor is it natural for us to feel empathy for people who have what social scientists call “low status” in our eyes, as did the Korean peasants we were killing.  Recent studies show that, faced with a choice of killing a single individual to save the lives of several people, we are far more apt to consider doing it if the individual we are sacrificing is of such low status. When subjects in an experiment are told that high-status people are being saved, the number willing to let the low-status victim die actually increases.

Another social science finding helps us understand why empathy is often in short supply and why Ted Cruz is capable of cavalierly recommending we carpet bomb Syrians living under the control of the Islamic State.  Once we have convinced ourselves of the necessity and correctness of bombing the hell out of a country — as Americans did during the Korean War and as we are now doing in our war against IS — the wiring in our Stone Age brain helps us overcome any hint of guilt we might be inclined to feel over the ensuing loss of life.  It quite naturally acts to dehumanize the distant victims of our air strikes.

This is a classic case of cognitive dissonance. Our brain hates to feel torn between conflicting emotions.  Instead it rationalizes doing what we want to do by discounting any feeling that gives rise to negative emotions, in this case, guilt. An extreme example of this was what happened when the Nazis decided to stigmatize Jews and later wipe them out. From the moment they began their ruthless anti-Semitic campaigns, they used hideous imagery to convince other Germans that Jews were not, like them, human at all, but little different than rats.  It is, of course, far easier to kill someone, or to sit by while others do the same, if you dehumanize them first. Rather than feeling empathy for the downtrodden Jews, many Germans felt contempt and disgust, strong emotions that swamped whatever other feelings they might have had.

In a study a few years ago, researchers measured the activity in the brains of subjects looking at pictures of homeless people.  The finding was shocking. Brain activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain where empathy is often registered, was significantly lower than normal.  Put another way, the subjects in this experiment literally paid the homeless no (or at least less) mind.

This may sound cruel and uncaring, but as far as biology is concerned it makes sense.  Our genes, as the biologist Richard Dawkins has taught us, are “selfish”; they are, that is, built to enhance their own replication, which is, in effect, their biological imperative.  Caring for people who are low in status, particularly those who belong to another tribe, doesn’t serve this imperative.  Indeed, it may interfere with it by diverting the attention of the host — that’s you and me — from activities that will enhance our survival.

Think of this as our Stone-Age brains in action.  It’s not that we necessarily make a conscious decision to ignore the fate of people who are low in status.  Our brain does this automatically and seamlessly for us. Out of conscious awareness it decides if someone is useful to us.  If that person is, our brain quickly achieves a state of hyper-attentiveness: our nostrils flare, our eyes widen, and our ears tune in relevant sounds.  Think of what happens when you’re in the presence of somebody important and you’ll know what I mean.  If someone is deemed useless to us?  Unless we’re worried that they hyperpose a threat, our brain tells our body to relax.

Because it is in our biological interest to feel empathy for people from our own tribe and family — those, that is, in a position to either enhance our survival or perpetuate our genes — we come equipped with mechanisms to help us distinguish our people from outsiders.  From the moment we’re born, we focus on those around us and bond with them.  A mother and child know each other through smell.  Brother and sister recognize each other’s familiar facial features.

When we hear someone speaking a foreign language, we instinctively discount their humanity.  This was shown in a 2014 experiment designed to determine if human beings were more willing to sacrifice someone who spoke a different language in order to save the lives of several others.  The findings were clear-cut.  Only 18% of the subjects in the experiment were willing to make the cold calculation that saving the lives of several people at the cost of one life was “fair” when the intended victim shared their native language.  However, that percent more than doubled when it was revealed that the person to be sacrificed spoke a foreign language.  The experiment’s results remained the same whether that language was Korean, Hebrew, Japanese, English, or Spanish.

Why Stories Matter When It Comes to American War

You may be beginning to wonder if we aren’t doomed to eternal indifference to the human beings who suffer when we loose our Air Force on them, but science offers us a modicum of hope on the subject.  In recent years, one of the strongest findings is that storytelling can break through our indifference and foster empathy even for distant peoples who might otherwise seem alien to us. This more than anything else gives us the ability to empathize with those with whom we don’t identify demographically or otherwise. Stories hold our attention, while feeding the strong urge to find meaningful patterns in human behavior.

As scientists have now demonstrated in experiments, the brain is a natural pattern finder. It wants one and one to equal two.  Mysterious may be the will of God, but here on Earth we expect behavior to be explicable.  Stories are designed to establish cause and effect, and once we understand what motivates people we can usually find a way to empathize with them.

Stories connect us to people in a way nothing else can.  It’s the reason politicians regularly tell stories on the campaign trail.  Years ago, Harvard social scientist Howard Gardner set out to discover what highly successful leaders have in common. After reviewing the lives of 11 luminaries, from Margaret Thatcher to Martin Luther King, Jr., he concluded that their success depended to a remarkable extent on their ability to communicate a compelling story or, as he put it, “narratives that help individuals think about and feel who they are, where they come from, and where they are headed.”  These stories, he found, “constitute the single most powerful weapon in the leader’s literary arsenal.”

When people are reduced to numbers — as were the civilian victims of air power during the Korean War and as are the civilians who become “collateral damage” in American air strikes in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere — we don’t feel their pain, nor do we automatically put ourselves in their shoes, which is by definition what you do when you are feeling empathic. We have the bomber pilot’s syndrome. We don’t feel anything for the victims below.

This is one reason why antiwar movements matter.  They tell stories about the victims of war.  It was striking in the Vietnam years, for instance, how many Americans came to care for, say, a small naked Vietnamese girl napalmed near her village, or so many other Vietnamese civilians who suffered under a rain of American bombs, rockets, napalm, and artillery shells.  The stories that the massive antiwar movement regularly told here about the distant world being decimated by the U.S. war machine created a powerful sense of empathy among many, including active-duty American soldiers and veterans of the war, for the plight of the Vietnamese.  (It helped that few Americans believed that North Vietnam posed an existential threat to the United States. Fear brings out the worst in us.)

Storytelling happens to be in every human’s toolkit.  We are all born storytellers and attentive listeners.  Biology may incline us to turn a cold eye on the suffering of people we can’t see and don’t know, but stories can liberate us.  Ted Cruz may be able to build up his poll numbers by promising to carpet bomb foreigners in the Middle East of whom we are fearful, but at least we know that biology doesn’t have to dictate our response. 

Our brains don’t have to stay in the Stone Age.  Stories can change us, if we start telling them.

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