Monday, March 20, 2017

Secrets R US: The NSA and Outsourcing Defense

This essay is an excerpt from  Big Lies: How Our Corporate Overlords, Politicians and Media Establishment Warp Reality and Undermine Democracy. Guma's latest book, Dons of Time, is a sci-fi look at the control of history as power.

By Greg Guma

Despite 24-hour news and talk about transparency, there's a lot we don't know about our past, much less current events. What’s worse, some of what we think we know isn't true. 
     The point is that it's no accident.
  
    Consider, for example, the circumstances that led to open war in Vietnam. According to official history, two US destroyers patrolling in the Gulf of Tonkin off North Vietnam were victims of unprovoked attacks in August 1964, leading to a congressional resolution giving President Johnson the power "to take all necessary measures."
     In fact, the destroyers were spy ships, part of a National Security Agency (NSA) eavesdropping program operating near the coast as a way to provoke the North Vietnamese into turning on their radar and other communications channels. The more provocative the maneuvers, the more signals that could be captured. Meanwhile, US raiding parties were shelling mainland targets. 
     Documents revealed later indicated that the August 4 attack on the USS Maddox – the pretext for passing the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution – may not even have taken place.
     But even if it did, the incident was still stage managed to build up congressional and public support for the war. Evidence suggests that the plan was based on Operation Northwoods, a scheme developed in 1962 to justify an invasion of Cuba. Among the tactics the Joint Chiefs of Staff considered then were blowing up a ship in Guantanamo Bay, a phony "communist Cuba terror campaign" in Florida and Washington, DC, and an elaborate plan to convince people that Cuba had shot down a civilian airliner filled with students. 
     That operation wasn't implemented, but two years later, to justify escalating the war, the administration's military brass found a way to create the necessary conditions in Vietnam.

Privatizing Defense (2004 Interview)

NSA and Echelon

For more than half a century, the eyes and ears of US power to monitor and manipulate information (and with it, mass perceptions) has been the NSA, initially designed to assist the CIA. Its original task was to collect raw information about threats to US security, cracking codes and using the latest technology to provide accurate intelligence on the intentions and activities of enemies. Emerging after World War II, its early focus was the Soviet Union. But it never did crack a high-level Soviet cipher system. On the other hand, it used every available means to eavesdrop on not only enemies but also allies and, sometimes, US citizens.
     In Body of Secrets, James Bamford described a bureaucratic and secretive behemoth, based in an Orwellian Maryland complex known as Crypto City. From there, supercomputers linked it to spy satellites, subs, aircraft, and equally covert, strategically placed listening posts worldwide. As of 2000, it had a $7 billion annual budget and directly employed at least 38,000 people, more than the CIA and FBI. It was also the leader of an international intelligence club, UKUSA, which includes Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Together, they monitored and recorded billions of encrypted communications, telephone calls, radio messages, faxes, and e-mails around the world.
     Over the years, however, the line between enemies and friends blurred, and the intelligence gatherers often converted their control of information into unilateral power, influencing the course of history in ways that may never be known. No doubt the agency has had a hand in countless covert operations; yet, attempts to pull away the veil of secrecy have been largely unsuccessful.
     In the mid-1970s, for example, just as Congress was attempting to reign in the CIA, the NSA was quietly creating a virtual state, a massive international computer network named Platform. Doing away with formal borders, it developed a software package that turned worldwide Sigint (short for "signal intelligence": communication intelligence, eavesdropping, and electronic intelligence) into a unified whole. The software package was code named Echelon, a name that has since become a synonym for eavesdropping on commercial communication.
     Of course, the NSA and its British sister, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), refused to admit Echelon existed, even though declassified documents appeared on the Internet and Congress conducted an initial investigation. But a European Parliament report also confirmed Echelon's activities, and encouraged Internet users and governments to adopt stronger privacy measures in response.
     In March 2001, several ranking British politicians discussed Echelon's potential impacts on civil liberties, and a European Parliament committee considered its legal, human rights, and privacy implications. The Dutch held similar hearings, and a French National Assembly inquiry urged the European Union to embrace new privacy enhancing technologies to protect against Echelon's eavesdropping. France launched a formal investigation into possible abuses for industrial espionage.

When Allies Compete

A prime reason for Europe's discontent was the growing suspicion that the NSA had used intercepted conversations to help US companies win contracts heading for European firms. The alleged losers included Airbus, a consortium including interests in France, Germany, Spain, and Britain, and Thomson CSF, a French electronics company. The French claimed they had lost a $1.4 billion deal to supply Brazil with a radar system because the NSA shared details of the negotiations with Raytheon. Airbus may have lost a contract worth $2 billion to Boeing and McDonnell Douglas because of information intercepted and passed on by the agency.
     According to former NSA agent Wayne Madsen, the US used information gathered from its bases in Australia to win a half share in a significant Indonesian trade contract for AT&T. Communication intercepts showed the contract was initially going to a Japanese firm. A bit later a lawsuit against the US and Britain was launched in France, judicial and parliamentary investigations began in Italy, and German parliamentarians demanded an inquiry.
     The rationale for turning the NSA loose on commercial activities, even those involving allies, was provided in the mid-90s by Sen. Frank DeConcini, then chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. "I don't think we should have a policy where we're going to invade the Airbus inner sanctum and find out their secrets for the purpose of turning it over to Boeing or McDonnell Douglas," he opined. "But if we find something, not to share it with our people seems to me to be not smart."
      President Bill Clinton and other US officials buttressed this view by charging that European countries were unfairly subsidizing Airbus. In other words, competition with significant US interests can be a matter of national security, and private capitalism must be protected from state-run enterprises.
      The US-Europe row about Airbus subsidies was also used as a "test case" for scientists developing new intelligence tools. At US Defense Department conferences on "text retrieval," competitions were staged to find the best methods. A standard test featured extracting protected data about "Airbus subsidies."

Manipulating Democracy

In the end, influencing the outcome of commercial transactions is but the tip of this iceberg. The NSA's ability to intercept to virtually any transmitted communication has enhanced the power of unelected officials and private interests to set covert foreign policy in motion. In some cases, the objective is clear and arguably defensible: taking effective action against terrorism, for example. But in others, the grand plans of the intelligence community have led it to undermine democracies.
     The 1975 removal of Australian Prime Minister Edward Whitlam is an instructive case. At the time of Whitlam's election in 1972, Australian intelligence was working with the CIA against the Allende government in Chile. The new PM didn’t simply order a halt to Australia's involvement, explained William Blum in Killing Hope, a masterful study of US interventions since World War II. Whitlam seized intelligence information withheld from him by the Australian Security and Intelligence Organization (ASIO), and disclosed the existence of a joint CIA-ASIO directorate that monitored radio traffic in Asia. He also openly disapproved of US plans to build up the Indian Ocean Island of Diego Garcia as a military-intelligence-nuclear outpost.
     Both the CIA and NSA became concerned about the security and future of crucial intelligence facilities in and near Australia. The country was already key member of UKUSA. After launching its first space-based listening post-a microwave receiver with an antenna pointed at earth-NSA had picked an isolated desert area in central Australia as a ground station. Once completed, the base at Alice Springs was named Pine Gap, the first of many listening posts to be installed around the world. For the NSA and CIA, Whitlam posed a threat to the secrecy and security of such operations.
     An early step was covert funding for the political opposition, in hopes of defeating Whitlam's Labor Party in 1974. When that failed, meetings were held with the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, a figurehead representing the Queen of England who had worked for CIA front organizations since the 50s. Defense officials warned that intelligence links would be cut off unless someone stopped Whitlam. On November 11, 1975, Kerr responded, dismissing the prime minister, dissolving both houses of Parliament, and appointing an interim government until new elections were held.
     According to Christopher Boyce (subject of The Falcon and the Snowman, a fictionalized account), who watched the process while working for TRW in a CIA-linked cryptographic communications center, the spooks also infiltrated Australian labor unions and contrived to suppress transportation strikes that were holding up deliveries to US intelligence installations. Not coincidentally, some unions were leading the opposition to development of those same facilities.
     How often, and to what effect, such covert ops have succeeded is another of the mysteries that comprise an unwritten history of the last half century. Beyond that, systems like Echelon violate the human right to individual privacy, and give those who control the information the ability to act with impunity, sometimes destroying lives and negating the popular will in the process.

Hiding the Agenda in Peru

In May 1960, when a U-2 spy plane was shot down over Soviet territory, President Dwight Eisenhower took great pains to deny direct knowledge or authorization of the provocative mission. In reality, he personally oversaw every U-2 mission, and had even riskier and more provocative bomber overflights in mind.
     It's a basic rule of thumb for covert ops: When exposed, keep denying and deflect the blame. More important, never, never let on that the mission itself may be a pretext, or a diversion from some other, larger agenda.
     Considering that, the April 20, 2001, shoot down of a plane carrying missionaries across the Brazilian border into Peru becomes highly suspicious. At first, the official story fed to the press was that Peruvian authorities ordered the attack on their own, over the pleas of the CIA "contract pilots" who initially spotted the plane. But Peruvian pilots involved in that program, supposedly designed to intercept drug flights, insist that nothing was shot down without US approval.
     Innocent planes were sometimes attacked, but most were small, low flying aircraft that didn't file flight plans and had no radios. This plane maintained regular contact and did file a plan. Still, even after it crash-landed, the Peruvians continued to strafe it, perhaps in an attempt to ignite the plane's fuel and eliminate the evidence.
     "I think it has to do with Plan Colombia and the coming war," said Celerino Castillo, who had previously worked in Peru for Drug Enforcement Agency. "The CIA was sending a clear message to all non-combatants to clear out of the area, and to get favorable press." The flight was heading to Iquitos, which "is at the heart of everything the CIA is doing right now," he added. "They don't want any witnesses."
     Timing also may have played a part. The shoot down occurred on the opening day of the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City. Uruguay's President Jorge Ibanez, who had proposed the worldwide legalization of drugs just weeks before, was expected to make a high-profile speech on his proposal at the gathering. The downing of a drug smuggling plane at this moment, near territory held by Colombia's FARC rebels, would help to defuse Uruguay's message and reinforce the image of the insurgents as drug smugglers.
     If you doubt that the US would condone such an operation or cover it up, consider this: In 1967, Israel torpedoed the USS Liberty, a large floating listening post, as it was eavesdropping on the Arab-Israeli war off the Sinai Peninsula. Hundreds of US sailors were wounded and killed, probably because Israel feared that its massacre of Egyptian prisoners at El Arish might be overheard. How did the Pentagon respond? By imposing a total news ban, and covering up the facts for decades.
     Will we ever find out what really happened in Peru, specifically why a missionary and her daughter were killed? Not likely, since it involves a private military contractor that is basically beyond the reach of congressional accountability.
     In 2009, when the Peru shoot down became one of five cases of intelligence operation cover up being investigated by the US House Intelligence Committee, the CIA inspector general concluded that the CIA had improperly concealed information about the incident. Intelligence Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chairwoman Jan Schakowsky, who led the investigation, didn’t rule out referrals to the Justice Department for criminal prosecutions if evidence surfaced that intelligence officials broke the law. But she couldn’t guarantee that the facts would ever come to light, since the Committee’s report of its investigation would be classified.
     The most crucial wrinkle in the Peruvian incident is the involvement of DynCorp, which was active in Colombia and Bolivia under large contracts with various US agencies. The day after the incident, ABC news reported that, according to “senior administration officials,” the crew of the surveillance plane that first identified the doomed aircraft "was hired by the CIA from DynCorp." Within two days, however, all references to DynCorp were scrubbed from ABC's Website. A week later, the New York Post claimed the crew actually worked for Aviation Development Corp., allegedly a CIA proprietary company.
     Whatever the truth, State Department officials refused to talk on the record about DynCorp's activities in South America. Yet, according to DynCorp's State Department contract, the firm had received at least $600 million over the previous few years for training, drug interdiction, search and rescue (which included combat), air transport of equipment and people, and reconnaissance in the region. And that was only what they put on paper. It also operated government aircraft and provided all manner of personnel, particularly for Plan Colombia.

Outsourcing Defense

DynCorp began in 1946 as the employee-owned air cargo business California Eastern Airways, flying in supplies for the Korean War. This and later government work led to charges that it was a CIA front company. Whatever the truth, it ultimately became a leading PMC, hiring former soldiers and police officers to implement US foreign policy without having to report to Congress.
     The push to privatize war gained traction during the first Bush administration. After the first Gulf War, the Pentagon, then headed by Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, paid a Halliburton subsidiary nearly $9 million to study how PMCs could support US soldiers in combat zones, according to a Mother Jones investigation. Cheney subsequently became CEO of Halliburton, and Brown & Root, later known as Halliburton KBR, won billions to construct and run military bases, some in secret locations.
     One of DynCorp’s earliest “police” contracts involved the protection of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and, after he was ousted, providing the “technical advice” that brought military officers involved in that coup into Haiti’s National Police. Despite this dodgy record, in 2002 it won the contract to protect another new president, Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai. By then, it was a top IT federal contractor specializing in computer systems development, and also providing the government with aviation services, general military management, and security expertise.
     Like other private military outfits, the main danger it has faced is the risk of public exposure. Under one contract, for example, DynCorp sprayed vast quantities of herbicides over Colombia to kill the cocaine crop. In September 2001, Ecuadorian Indians filed a class action lawsuit, charging that DynCorp recklessly sprayed their homes and farms, causing illnesses and deaths and destroying crops. In Bosnia, private police provided by DynCorp for the UN were accused of buying and selling prostitutes, including a 12-year-old girl. Others were charged with videotaping a rape.
     In the first years of the 21st century, DynCorp's day-to-day operations in South America were overseen by State Department officials, including the Narcotic Affairs Section and the Air Wing, the latter a clique of unreformed cold warriors and leftovers from 80s operations in Central America. It was essentially the State Department's private air force in the Andes, with access to satellite-based recording and mapping systems.
     In the 1960s, a similar role was played by the Vinnell Corp., which the CIA called "our own private mercenary army in Vietnam." Vinnell later became a subsidiary of TRW, a major NSA contractor, and employed US Special Forces vets to train Saudi Arabia's National Guard. In the late 1990s, TRW hired former NSA director William Studeman to help with its intelligence program.
     DynCorp avoided the kind of public scandal that surrounded the activities of Blackwater. In Ecuador, where it developed military logistics centers and coordinated “anti-terror” police training, the exposure of a secret covenant signed with the Aeronautics Industries Directorate of the Ecuadorian Air Force briefly threatened to make waves. According to a November 2003 exposé in Quito’s El Comercio, the arrangement, hidden from the National Defense Council, made DynCorp’s people part of the US diplomatic mission.
     In Colombia, DynCorp’s coca eradication and search-and-rescue missions led to controversial pitched battles with rebels. US contract pilots flew Black Hawk helicopters carrying Colombian police officers who raked the countryside with machine gun fire to protect the missions against attacks. According to investigative reporter Jason Vest, DynCorp employees were also implicated in narcotics trafficking. But such stories didn’t get far, and, in any case, DynCorp’s “trainers” simply ignored congressional rules, including those that restrict the US from aiding military units linked to human rights abuses.
     In 2003, DynCorp won a multimillion-dollar contract to build a private police force in post-Saddam Iraq, with some of the funding diverted from an anti-drug program for Afghanistan. In 2004, the State Department further expanded DynCorp’s role as a global US surrogate with a $1.75 billion, five year contract to provide law enforcement personnel for civilian policing operations in “post-conflict areas” around the world. That March, the company also got an Army contract to support helicopters sold to foreign countries. The work, described as “turnkey” services, includes program management, logistics support, maintenance and aircrew training, aircraft maintenance and refurbishment, repair and overhaul of aircraft components and engines, airframe and engine upgrades, and the production of technical publications.
     In short, DynCorp was a trusted partner in the military-intelligence-industrial complex. "Are we outsourcing order to avoid public scrutiny, controversy or embarrassment?" asked Rep. Schakowsky upon submitting legislation to prohibit US funding for private military firms in the Andean region. "If there is a potential for a privatized Gulf of Tonkin incident, then the American people deserve to have a full and open debate before this policy goes any further."
     If and when that ever happens, the discussion will have to cover a lot of ground. Private firms, working in concert with various intelligence agencies, constitute a vast foreign policy apparatus that is largely invisible, rarely covered by the corporate press, and not currently subject to congressional oversight. The Freedom of Information Act simply doesn't apply. Any information on whom they arm or how they operate is private, proprietary information.
     The US government downplays its use of mercenaries, a state of affairs that could undermine any efforts to find out about CIA activities that are concealed from Congress. Yet private contractors perform almost every function essential to military operations, a situation that has been called the “creeping privatization of the business of war.” By 2004, the Pentagon was employing more than 700,000 private contractors.
     The companies are staffed by former generals, admirals, and highly trained officers. Name a hot spot and some PMC has people there. DynCorp has worked on the Defense Message System Transition Hub and done long-range planning for the Air Force. MPRI had a similar contract with the Army, and for a time coordinated the Pentagon's military and leadership training in at least seven African nations.
     How did this outsourcing of defense evolve? In 1969, the US Army had about 1.5 million active duty soldiers. By 1992, the figure had been cut by half. Since the mid-1990s, however, the US has mobilized militarily to intervene in several significant conflicts, and a corporate “foreign legion” has filled the gap between foreign policy imperatives and what a downsized, increasingly over-stretched military can provide.
     Use of high technology equipment feeds the process. Private companies have technical capabilities that the military needs, but doesn’t always possess. Contractors have maintained stealth bombers and Predator unmanned drones used in Afghanistan and Iraq. Some military equipment is specifically designed to be operated and maintained by private companies.
     In Britain, the debate over military privatization has been public, since the activities of the UK company Sandline in Sierra Leone and Papua New Guinea embarrassed the government in the late 1990s. But no country has clear policies to regulate PMCs, and the limited oversight that does exist rarely works. In the US, they have largely escaped notice, except when US contract workers in conflict zones are killed or go way over the line, as in the case of Blackwater.
     According to Guy Copeland, who began developing public-private IT policy in the Reagan years, “The private sector must play an integral role in improving our national cybersecurity.” After all, he has noted, private interests own and operate 85 percent of the nation’s critical IT infrastructure. He should know. After all, Copeland drafted much of the language in the Bush Administration’s 2002 National Strategy to Secure Cyberspace as co-chair of the Information Security Committee of the Information Technology Association of America.
     Nevertheless, when the federal government becomes dependent on unaccountable, private companies like DynCorp and Blackwater (later renamed Xe Services) for so many key security services, as well as for military logistics, management, strategy, expertise and “training,” fundamental elements of US defense have been outsourced. And the details of that relationship are matters that the intelligence community will fight long and hard to keep out of public view.

Corporate Connections and "Soft Landings"

Although the various departments and private contractors within the military-intelligence-industrial complex occasionally have turf battles and don't always share information or coordinate strategy as effectively as they might, close and ongoing contact has long been considered essential. And it has expanded as a result of the information revolution. The entire intelligence community has its own secret Intranet, which pulls together FBI reports, NSA intercepts, analysis from the DIA and CIA, and other deeply covert sources.
     Private firms are connected to this information web through staff, location, shared technology, and assorted contracts. Working primarily for the Pentagon, for example, L-3 Communications, a spinoff from major defense contractor Lockheed Martin, has manufactured hardware like control systems for satellites and flight recorders. MPRI, which was bought by L-3, provided services like its operations in Macedonia. L-3 also built the NSA's Secure Terminal Equipment, which instantly encrypts phone conversations.
     Another private contractor active in the Balkans was Science Applications, staffed by former NSA and CIA personnel, and specializing in police training. When Janice Stromsem, a Justice Department employee, complained that its program gave the CIA unfettered access to recruiting agents in foreign police forces, she was relieved of her duties. Her concern was that the sovereignty of nations receiving aid from the US was being compromised.
     In 1999, faced with personnel cuts, the NSA offered over 4000 employees "soft landing" buy outs to help them secure jobs with defense firms that have major NSA contracts. NSA offered to pay the first year's salary, in hopes the contractor would then pick up the tab. Sometimes the employee didn't even have to move away from Crypto City. Companies taking part in the program included TRW and MPRI's parent company, Lockheed Martin.
     Lockheed was also a winner in the long-term effort to privatize government services. In 2000, it won a $43.8 million contract to run the Defense Civilian Personnel Data System, one of the largest human resources systems in the world. As a result, a major defense contractor took charge of consolidating all Department of Defense personnel systems, covering hiring and firing for about 750,000 civilian employees. This put the contractor at the cutting edge of Defense Department planning, and made it a key gatekeeper at the revolving door between the US military and private interests.

Invisible Threats

Shortly after his appointment as NSA director in 1999, Michael Hayden went to see the film Enemy of the State, in which Will Smith is pursued by an all-seeing, all hearing NSA and former operative Gene Hackman decries the agency's dangerous power. In Body of Secrets, author Bamford says Hayden found the film entertaining, yet offensive and highly inaccurate. Still, the NSA chief was comforted by "a society that makes its bogeymen secrecy and power. That's really what the movie's about.''
     Unlike Hayden, most people don't know where the fiction ends and NSA reality begins. Supposedly, the agency rarely "spies" on US citizens at home. On the other hand, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act allows a secret federal court to waive that limitation. The rest of the world doesn't have that protection. Designating thousands of keywords, names, phrases, and phone numbers, NSA computers can pick them out of millions of messages, passing anything of interest on to analysts. One can only speculate about what happens next.
     After 9/11 the plan was to go further with a project code named Tempest. The goal was to capture computer signals such as keystrokes or monitor images through walls or from other buildings, even if the computers weren't linked to a network. One NSA document, "Compromising Emanations Laboratory Test Requirements, Electromagnetics," described procedures for capturing the radiation emitted from a computer-through radio waves and the telephone, serial, network, or power cables attached to it.
     Other NSA programs have included Oasis, designed to reduce audiovisual images into machine-readable text for easier filtering, and Fluent, which expanded Echelon's multilingual capabilities. And let's not forget the government's Carnivore Internet surveillance program, which can collect all communications over any segment of the network being watched.
     Put such elements together, combine them with business imperatives and covert foreign policy objectives, then throw PMCS into the mix, and you get a glimpse of the extent to which information can be translated into raw power and secretly used to shape events. Although most pieces of the puzzle remain obscure, enough is visible to justify suspicion, outrage, and a campaign to pull away the curtain on this Wizard of Oz. But fighting a force that is largely invisible and unaccountable – and able to eavesdrop on the most private exchanges, that is a daunting task, perhaps even more difficult than confronting the mechanisms of corporate globalization that it protects and promotes.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Deadly Facts: Objectivity & a Culture of Conformity

Prisoners of the Real: Chapter 18

About a century ago the Western world entered an age of artificial substitutes, technical ingenuity, mechanical products, technological values, and accelerating motion. The watchword of that age was objectivity – a highly illusive standard for both leaders and the led. In particular, the notion of objectivity deeply affected the emerging mass communications industry, which before long was serving as one of the most powerful tools of global social management.

In the 19th century news had been an open ideological weapon; opinions splattered across most printed pages. But the modern media age brought with it a new "best practice" – objective reporting. Based on the contention that "rational people" could discover the truth if presented with enough unfettered facts, objectivity became the largely unexamined goal of the professional press. In 1947, however, the Commission on Freedom of the Press concluded that it was no longer just a goal. It had become a fetish.

By the end of the 20th century the festishizing of apparent "facts" was viewed as a serious media problem, fed by both print and electronic media. As journalist Mark Harris put it, "Only hard data are useful to the press. Unable to negotiate meditation, the media turn it off. Reporters cannot believe things they cannot instantly absorb, jot down, add up and phone in."

In the words of TV's most famous FBI man, Jack Friday, like a good cop, a good reporter -- or a rational leader -- supposedly wanted "nothing but the facts." That many of the so-called "facts" turned out to be false, incomplete or inaccurate, and that objectivity itself was an impossible standard, seemed not to matter at the time.

Humanity was still turning outward then, toward the "objective," and upward toward increased “order,” through scientific methods and expanding bureaucratic organizations. The dream of the new world, at first sounding much like Rousseau's vision of a naturalized community, gradually became a very different reality -- centralized, regimented, and predictable. For a while, nevertheless, human relations and behavioral engineering were effective tools used by many leaders to turn people into more easily conditioned extroverts.

New materialist assumptions replaced the idea of a "rational soul" with a "tabula rasa" upon which society's managers hoped to write. The term "tabula rasa" was introduced by John Locke in 1672, just as a new English middle-class was disposing of the divine rights of kings. Rejecting Descartes' theory of innate knowledge, Locke traced it instead back to sense perception. We begin, he said, as blank slates, without general principles. After birth external stimuli imprint themselves upon the mind. Locke applied Newton's mechanistic view of the world to the theory of knowledge:

"Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper, void of all character, without any ideas; how comes it to be furnished? Whence comes it by that vast store, which the busy and boundless fancy of man has painted on it with an almost endless variety? Whence has it all the materials of knowledge and reason? To this I answer in one word, from experience; in that all our knowledge is founded, and from that it ultimately derives itself."

Combined with dialectical materialism, Locke's hypothesis found wide support in the 20th century. The conditioned reflex –- training to respond to a given stimulus in a predetermined fashion –- was a shaping mechanism that, according to psychologist J.B. Watson, confirmed that the human being is "an assembled organic machine ready to run."

The tools of operant conditioning soon developed by B.F. Skinner rested upon a related assumption: that the "living organism" we call a human being functions faithfully in response to externally administered stimuli. This gradually conferred on our leaders, as the self-selected programmers for these living machines, the new status of cultural designers. There was a downside, however. The rest of humanity was consigned to a slavish extroversion that removed the individual search for truth and the highest good from view.

The other-directed person, as David Reisman described him in a seminal study, The Lonely Crowd, is the model for the salaried worker or bureaucrat in any metropolitan area, "torn between the illusion that life should be easy, if he could only find the ways of proper adjustment to the group, and the half buried feeling that it is not easy for him." Reisman documented how the shift away from agriculture and the growth of habits of scientific thought caused religious feelings to give way to rational, often individualistic attitudes.

The centralization and bureaucratization of society, in turn, increased awareness of and sensitivity to other people. The result was Fromm's "marketer," Mills' "fixer," Arnold Green's "middle class male child." Other-direction insured social conformity and, therefore, apparent comfort in one's peer group. Rational extroverts care very much what others think of them. Being liked is the chief area of concern:

"What is common to all other-directed people is that their contemporaries are the source of direction for the individual – either those known to him or those with whom he is indirectly acquainted, through friends and through the mass media. This source is of course 'internalized' in the sense that dependence on it for guidance in life is implanted early. The goals toward which the other-directed person strives shift with that guidance: it is only the process of striving itself and the process of paying close attention to the signals from others that remain unaltered throughout life."

The other-directed person is also often a model rational manager, someone who believes that everyone is a customer, and all of them objects of either conciliation or manipulation. Jung described this kind of person as an extrovert psychological type of either the thinking or feeling rational variety. As leaders they are object-oriented and dedicated to "given facts" and the status quo, never expecting to find absolute factors in their own inner lives. Everything they know is outside themselves, their guide is external necessity.

Such a consciousness, said Jung, looks outward because that is where the essential and decisive determinant is found. No serious attempt to overreach "current facts" is made, since such facts are a source of almost inexhaustible fascination.

Conveniently, the moral standard of the modern leader coincides with the demands of society. Above all, such a person is adaptable. Yet adjustment to the "objective" situation, the demands of the immediate environment, isn't merely adaptation. The factual fetishism of rational managers also traps them in short-range planning and bans most considerations beyond the observable, anything that lies outside the immediate conditions of time and space. Instead, they do only what is expected.

In most modern societies, leaders and managers have become a new class, a covert cult of ascensionists. For these committed strivers, the highest person represents the utmost in power, authority, and sometimes intelligence. But as Lewis Mumford noted, those who look upward and outward, moving across vast distances at rapid speeds, often forget to look downward and inward. Both self and Earth are sacrificed in a quest for order and control, and the rejection of the inner self becomes the curse of our age.

The dominance of purely rational habits of thought in almost all areas of life has also given theories the veneer of absolute truth. Despite the limits of perception, we struggle for certainty about the small bits of knowledge we hold. Our spirit of logical inquiry is too often a journey to eradicate doubt and establish doctrine. Once a hypothesis has been verified, the next step is to corroborate, refine and disseminate it. In this way a variety of flawed and false theories can attain the status of law.

A significant example is the behaviorist hypothesis that the only elementary function of the central nervous system is reflex. To verify this, only experiments that registered responses to "change" were conducted. According to ethologist Konrad Lorenz, these experiments were executed in a way "that precluded their revealing that the central nervous system can do more than react passively to stimuli." He concluded that "the Skinnerian has no right to comment on innate behavior or on aggression, because he cuts it from consideration."

Nevertheless, that belief system has spread. Despite its blind spots, the Skinnerian view has made a deep impact, almost becoming an item of faith. The simplicity of the reflex doctrine, along with the apparent exactitude of related research, has led to considerable acclaim. In Civilized Man's Eight Deadly Sins, Lorenz noted:

"Even religious believers could be converted to it, for if the child is born as a 'tabula rasa,' it is the duty of every believer to see to it that this child and, possibly, all other children, are brought up in what he believes to be the only true religion. Thus behavioristic dogma supports every doctrinaire in his conviction."

Behaviorism is basically the doctrine of human as mechanism restated as a democratic principle: all of us are created potentially equal -- blank slates without instinct, and would be equal under the same external conditions. The threat to democratic order, therefore, is the "myth" of the inner being, which suggests the existence of differences in social need and response.

Most leaders generally accept such mechanistic ideas, moving their communities and organizations toward increased predictability. But in order for such so-called rationality to function as the central operational principle, people must be unresisting objects. The rulers of the modern world may disagree about ideology or economics, but they have apparently reached a consensus on at least one matter – that the conditioning of humanity is highly desirable. The social contract, in the US and elsewhere, may have been initiated with ideals such as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But it has been amended considerably over time, leaning progressively and dramatically toward order and uniformity.

Judging from the higher degree of extroversion in developed societies, and the popularity of analysis and superficial certainty, mass indoctrination has been remarkably effective. But classification without reflection upon whole systems can be dangerous; this approach is easily prey to reductionism. It smirks at attempts to increase knowledge without quantification or operational research. The filter of measurement becomes the only accepted standard.

To look at and work with human beings is this manner, however, one must accept a dehumanized view of consciousness. Along with that comes repression and self-censorship -- of subjective experiences, impulses, instincts and other challenges to "reason."

Skinnerians proclaimed that the "autonomous" human was dead, replaced by conditioned and conditioning humanity. What they thought we needed was more objective, exacting research to push back the decimal places that measure the "real world." But humanity's half-buried instincts have not completely disappeared. This adjusted life, they still remind us, is not bringing us closer to the highest good, the "summum bonum," and may instead be moving us farther away.

This is a excerpt from Prisoners of the Real. To read other chapters, go to Prisoners of the Real: An Odyssey

The Top Ten: Maverick Reader Favorites

Here are the most-read articles published on this site from 2008 to 2017, based on pageview statistics from blogspot.com. Most of them were also published on other websites, including Center for Global Research, Toward Freedom, VTDigger, ZNet, Truthout, AlterNet, and Common Dreams. 

    Two of the three most popular stories have had staying power for years. "Remembering MLK" is an unusual take on the Civil Rights leader's death and a woman from his "secret" life, while "Do Psychopaths..." is a wide-ranging "rant" originally developed for radio.
     But the new #1 article looks at Jane Sanders' impact on Burlington College, which closed in 2016 after a disastrous land deal. Several posts on this site have focused on Bernie Sanders, but one on his relationship with Sandia Labs, a Lockheed Martin subsidiary, went viral as he launched his presidential campaign. Also widely viewed is an article focusing on Bernie's first victory and accomplishments as Burlington mayor, expanded from my book, The People's Republic: Vermont and the Sanders Revolution
    Perennially popular is "Fear Factors," a chapter from a series on counter-terrorism and disinformation in the late 1970s. It's also especially satisfying to continue seeing a key chapter from "Prisoners of the Real" on the list, along with its table of contents. New additions to the Top Ten include a look at the potential of a Progressive-Libertarian movement and the threat of a modern form of "friendly fascism."
VERMONT FOCUS
Burlington Mayor James Burke’s allies considered him honest and fearless, driven by civic pride and a sense of duty. His political enemies questioned his motives and called him a demagogue. He sometimes called them “corporate interests” or “foreign capitalists.” This series of essays about the Queen City's early progressive era is excerpted from The Vermont Way, a multi-platform history of Vermont. 

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Prisoners of the Real: An Odyssey

An intellectual journey from Pythagoras to planetary consciousness -- and a new vision of freedom & cooperation. 
  
Prisoners of the Real makes the connection between solar and lunar knowledge, illuminating the cost of our preoccupation with certainty and order. 
  
Exploring insights from linguistics, psychology, physics, literature, philosophy and management science, it opens the door to a new vision of freedom and cooperation – Dionysian leadership.

Video Preview: Dionysus Rising


"Dionysian leaders use artistic methods to invent structures of reality. Although they acknowledge that scientific and artistic processes have equal worth, they de-emphasize logical reasoning and deduction and focus on metaphorical thinking. Their interest is not definition but discovery.”

Section One: The Rational Trap
The Creative Also Destroys * Deconstructing Leadership * Anatomy of Insecurity * Managers and Their Tools * The Corporate Way of Life * The Dictatorship of Time * Rules for Rationals * The Age of Adaptability * Living with Rational Management

Section Two: Philosophy of the Real 

Section Three: New World Disorders

Section Four: 
Restructuring Reality – The Dionysian Way

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Doomsday Visions: Imagining End Times

New Video: Reign of Error

   

On Halloween Eve in 1938, a flood of terror swept the United States. Some people, believing that the world was coming to an end, tried flight or suicide, or just cringed in their homes as "aliens" from Mars attacked New Jersey, then New York and the world. 
     But it was just a prank, tapping a deep national well of pre-war anxiety, and produced for radio by Orson Welles and his Mercury Players.
  
     Times have changed so radically since then that, in the face of real disasters like the Three Mile Island “partial meltdown” in 1979, the explosion and fire at Chernobyl in 1986, the 2011 earthquake and Tsunami-sparked disaster in Japan or... the election of Donald Trump, many people are deceptively calm.
      Are we really so confident about our ability to cope and recover, or have we given in to an overarching pessimism about the future of the planet and fate of humanity?
     According to a survey by the Encyclopedia Britannica, in 1980 nearly half of all US junior high school students believed that World War III would begin by the year 2000. If you consider the last decade, it looks like the youth of that period – in their 40s today – were only off by a few years.
     Many futurologists, an academic specialty that emerged about 40 years ago, continue to warn that the environment is critically damaged. Yet this sounds positively cautious when compared to the diverse images of social calamity projected through films, books and the news media. There have always been such predictions, but in the last few decades they have proliferated almost as rapidly as nuclear weapons during a Cold War. Some dramatize a “big bang” theory –global devastation caused by some extinction level event.
     Fortunately, a few do chart a slightly hopeful future, one in which humanity either smartens up in time to save itself or manages to survive.
     Rather than a desire to be scared out of our wits, the attraction to such stories and predictions may reflect a widespread interest in confronting the likely future. The mass media may, in fact, be producing training guides for the coming Dark Age -- if we're lucky.

Variations on a Theme

Sometimes humanity – or California – is saved in the nick of time by an individual sacrifice or collective action. Sometimes, as in the classics On the Beach, Dr. Strangelove or The Omega Man (remade as I am Legend), we are basically wiped out. Occasionally there are long-term possibilities for survival, but technology breaks down and the environment takes strange revenge. In some cases the future is so dismal that it is hardly worth going on, as in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
     In a few cases the end of humanity is just a piece of cosmic black humor.
     All of these are speculative visions, many adapted from ideas originally developed in pulp science fiction or from prophetic statements by figures like Edgar Cayce. The films usually offer a way out (audiences generally favor hopeful endings), while deep doom and gloom tend to gain more traction in print. But both scenarios share the assumption that the track we are on leads to a dangerous dead end.
     We seem to keep asking the same basic questions: How do we get to the apocalypse? And what happens afterward? One obvious way to get pretty close is to misuse technology, especially when the mistakes are made as a result of greed – for power, knowledge or cold cash.  
Vermont's Nuclear Plant
      The classic anti-nuclear film The China Syndrome presents a textbook example: greedy corporations ignoring public health and shoddy construction in pursuit of profit. It was a powerful statement in its day, especially given the Three Mile accident just weeks after the film's release, yet predictable in a way and inconclusive on the prospects for health or quality survival in a nuclear-powered world. We are just beginning to have this discussion again.

     An earlier “close call” film, The Andromeda Strain, had a more inventive story and placed the blame on a lust for knowledge (the old Frankenstein theme). But this early techno-triller provided no real solution to the problem of disease or disaster created by scientific discovery. In Michael Crichton’s Andromeda Strain the threat was a deadly organism brought back from outer space, the same kind of self-inflicted biological warfare that heavy doses of radioactive fallout can become. But in the book and film the blood of victims coagulated almost instantly, avoiding the prolonged agony of dying from a plague or the long-term effects of radiation.
     Fear of nuclear power is by no means new. Radiation created many movie monsters in the 1950s, from the incredible 50-foot man and woman to giant mantises, crabs and spiders. But the threat was usually related to the testing or detonation of weapons, not the ongoing use of what was then called “the peaceful atom.” That mythical atom was going to be our good friend in a cheap, safe, long-term relationship.
      Since then, and especially since the nuclear accidents of the 1970s and 80s, nuclear plants have provided a basis for various bleak scenarios. Not even Vermont has been spared, though it sometimes appears as a post-disaster oasis. In the 1970s novel The Orange R, however, Middlebury College teacher John Clagett extended nuclear terror into a future where the Green Mountains is inhabited by radioactive people called Roberts. They are dying off rapidly in a country where apartheid has become a device to keep the Roberts away from the Normals.
     Using a pulp novel style Clagett lays out the overall situation about halfway through:
     “For many years every nuclear plant built had been placed in Robert country, ever since, in fact, the dreadful month in which three plants had ruptured cooling systems, spreading radioactive vapor over much of Vermont, New Hampshire and West Massachusetts. After that no more plants had been built near populated areas; before long, the requirement that the plants should be located on running fresh water and in lightly populated country had brought about the present situation. Norm country was surviving and living high on the power generated in Robert country, where radiation grew worse, year by year.”
     In The Orange R Normal people who live in radioactive areas wear airtight suits and laugh hysterically when anyone mentions solar power. All of Vermont’s major streams and bodies of water have heated up, and the deer have mutated into killer Wolverdeer. Still, the book offers a hopeful vision at the end: the Roberts rise up and take over Vermont’s nukes and successfully dismantle the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, as well as a corporate state that is only vaguely described. Most Vermonters have terminal radiation sickness, but for humanity it turns out to be another close call.

Prophecies Go Mainstream

There are simply too many novels about the end of the current civilization, too many to list and perhaps too many for our psychological health. It could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
     Only a few decades ago people who accepted the prophecies of Nostradamus or Edgar Cayce were mocked by mainstream society and even some of their close friends. Cayce predicted that the western part of the US would be broken up, that most of Japan would be covered by water, and that New York would be destroyed in 1998 (perhaps he meant Mayor Giuliani’s remake of Times Square). Nearly 400 years earlier Nostradamus, whose benefactor was Henry II of France, said that western civilization would be under heavy attack from the East in 1999, with possible cataclysmic repercussions. Not far off, it turns out.
     But what is “lunatic fringe” in one era can become mainstream, perhaps even commercially viable, in another.
     The destruction of the West Coast has been featured in numerous books and movies. Hollywood has of course excelled in creating doomsday myths, from the antichrist’s continuing saga in countless unmemorable installments, to total destruction in the Planet of the Apes franchise, The Day After Tomorrow, 2012 and many more.

     Japanese filmmakers have been equally and famously preoccupied with mass destruction. Decades before the current disaster, they even turned Cayce’s prophecy about their country into a 1975 disaster movie called Tidal Wave. Starring Lorne Greene and Japanese cast, it was imported to the US by Roger Corman. Internet Movie Data Base (IMDB) describes it this way:
     “Racked by earthquakes and volcanoes, Japan is slowly sinking into the sea. A race against time and tide begins as Americans and Japanese work together to salvage some fraction of the disappearing Japan.” Close, but they missed the nuclear angle.
     Predictions to the contrary, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove remains one of the most memorable doomsday movies. Its black humor and naturalistic performances by Peter Sellers, George C. Scott and Sterling Hayden combine with a devastating premise – that The End may come through a mixture of human error (a demented general) and flawed technology (an extinction level bomb that can't be disarmed).
     There haven’t been many stories based on Nostradamus’ Eastern siege prophecy, although there certainly could be. But a number of films have adapted Cayce’s visions of environmental upheaval. Oddly enough Charlton Heston appears in several, usually as Cassandra or savior. In Planet of the Apes he is an astronaut who returns to Earth only to find his civilization in ruins, apes in charge, and humans living below ground as scarred mutants who worship the bomb. In The Omega Man he is a disillusioned scientist who has survived bio-chemical war and spends his days exterminating book-burning mutants. He discovers an antidote to the plague, but only a handful of people are left to give humanity another chance.
     And then there is Soylent Green, a film that presents the slow road to environmental pollution and starvation. This time Heston is a policeman who eventually discovers that the masses have been hoodwinked into cannibalism. They are also so depressed that suicide parlors are big business.
     Most of the Heston vehicles were big budget B-movies, exploiting popular anxiety but much less affecting than Dr. Strangelove or Nevil Shute’s On the Beach. On the other hand, they deftly tapped into growing doubts about the future with a Dirty Harry-style response.

After The End

Ecologist George Stewart wrote his novel Earth Abides in 1949, before the Atom bomb scare took hold or the environment seemed like something to worry about. But his story of civilization destroyed by an airborne disease took the idea of rebuilding afterward about as far as anyone. In this prescient book the breakdown of man-made systems is traced in convincing detail, in counterpoint with a story of survival without machines, mass production and, ultimately, most of what residents of developed countries take for granted.
     Not many recent books or films are as optimistic about our prospects once humanity has gone through either its Big Bang or Long Wheeze end game. In Margaret Atwood’s multi -volume science fiction saga, for example, man-made environmental catastrophe and mass extinction in Oryx and Crake is followed, in The Year of the Flood, by marginal survival in a strange mutated world.
     The optimism of Earth Abides about the ability of human beings to adapt may be a reason why it did not develop the cult following of more dystopian tales. The more dismal the forecast, it seems, the more enthusiastic the following. Apropos, one of the most popular science fiction books downloaded in recent years was The Passage, Justin Cronin’s compelling mixture of vampires run amuck, government conspiracy, and post-apocalypse survivalism.
      What most of these stories and films have in common is a basic idea: the inevitability of radical, cataclysmic change. Should we manage to get beyond annihilation, apocalypse, Armageddon or whatever, they predict that we are very likely to enter a new Dark Age. Like most things, this too isn't a new idea. At the end of his life J. B. Priestley, the British novelist who founded the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, contemplated such a future. Calling it a “slithering down” he forecast that industrial civilization would one day come to an end.
      But even in a Dark Age there is some hope. The life of the planet will likely continue and equilibrium can be reestablished in time. At least many of us continue to hope so. If the devastation is not total, perhaps a new culture can emerge. The main question thus becomes not whether the Earth will survive but how human beings fit in.
     Near the end of his life H. G. Wells, the master of science fiction who produced optimistic visions in The Shape of Things to Come and The Time Machine, turned pessimist and wrote Mind at the End of Its Tether. “There is no way out or round or through,” he concluded. Life on Earth may not be ending, Wells believed, but humans aren’t going anywhere.
     Compared with that forecast, tales of a new Dark Age start to sound more hopeful.