Distrust But Verify

What the U.S. government does openly is many times worse than anything it can be doing secretly, and yet the secrets fascinate us.

If you compare polling on majority views on most political topics with actual U.S. policy, there’s little overlap. Scholars now produce reports finding that the United States is an oligarchy. Most people don’t vote. Those who try to engage with U.S. politics get excited when the Democrats fall back into the minority and start pretending to favor popular policies again. People hope to find reflected bits of decency in official rhetoric during a two-year-long period of pretended governance that amounts to a public sales pitch and a private wink to the campaign funding overlords.

Our government openly subsidizes the destruction of our planet’s climate, openly allows corporations to pay negative taxes, openly redistributes wealth upward, openly funds a military as costly as the rest of the globe’s nations’ combined, openly serves as the marketing firm for the U.S. weapons that make up much of that other half of the globe’s armed forces, openly enacts corporate trade policies that ruin economies and the environment, openly denies us basic human services, openly prosecutes whistleblowers, openly restricts our civil liberties, openly murders large numbers of people with drone strikes. We can watch a police officer in New York choke a man to death on video and walk away without being prosecuted for any crime. We can watch the U.S. Congress take direction in promoting a new war from a foreign leader (tune in February 11 for the latest), and yet what goes on in secret obsesses us.

I don’t mean the lies that have been exposed, the false excuses for wars, the miscalculations, the “misplacement” of billions of dollars. I mean the human drama. It’s not enough to know that Obamacare is a grotesque and deadly monstrosity; we want to know about the insurance executives’ roles in writing it. It’s not enough to know that Iraq has been destroyed. We want to hear about the oil barons drawing up the plans with Dick Cheney. It’s not enough to know that a tragic crime was used to launch catastrophic wars, we want to know whether the crime was staged. We want to know who was behind every assassination, and every powerful bit of propaganda. We want to know whether each CIA operation can be explained by evil or incompetence. We’re like Mark Twain, who said, “Sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on, or by imbeciles who really mean it.”

This is what I wonder in looking at Operation Merlin, over which Jeffrey Sterling is now on trial as a whistleblower. Whether giving nuclear weapons plans to Iran can be explained by incompetence that surpasses my understanding or must be explained by evil, the U.S. government is openly trying to incarcerate a whistleblower who did his legal duty. I just happen to have read a book by Donald Jeffries called Hidden History: An Expose of Modern Crimes, Conspiracies, and Cover-ups in American Politics. I’ve been thinking over dozens of alleged conspiracies from the killing of President Kennedy to the supposed forging of Obama’s birth certificate. Some I think are real, others nonsense. The point is that I think there may be a hybrid solution. I may not have to choose incompetence or evil to explain the CIA giving nukes to Iran. I can choose incompetence combined with bureaucratic dysfunction combined with evil priorities.

If the CIA’s top priority was nuclear disarmament, it wouldn’t have tried, as it claims to have tried, to slow down an Iranian nuclear weapons program (if one existed, it didn’t know) by giving Iran nuclear plans. The CIA officers involved testified in court that they knew their action risked proliferating nuclear weapons technology. That also means that if their top priority had been obeying the law, they wouldn’t have created Operation Merlin. But if their top priority was being involved, appearing to be doing something important, and if they were risking an outcome that didn’t much worry them, Operation Merlin is exactly what they would have done — assuming gargantuan levels of incompetence. That is, if they didn’t much care if Iran got nukes, if they in fact thought it would be a pretty cool excuse to start a war if Iran could be shown to be working on nukes, well then, why the heck not find the most outlandishly stupid and illegal way in which to try to slow Iran down — a way that could very well speed Iran up?

This same hybrid explanation applies to other mysteries as well, of course. If the U.S. government’s top priority had been preventing a crime like 911, it would have stopped bombing and occupying Muslim nations, adopted an approach of cooperation and generosity with the world, and invested at least a wee bit of effort into preventing the crime, especially when the president was handed a memo warning about it and when his top advisor was shouting about the need.  But if the people running the U.S. government didn’t really give much of a damn about preventing such a crime, and if they in fact thought it would be just about the only way to get new wars started, well then, they would have done at least what we know them to have done and perhaps more that we could learn from a proper investigation.  Part incompetent, part evil — how evil, we don’t know. But we don’t need to conclude that the hijackers didn’t exist or a missile hit the Pentagon or the World Trade Center was blown up from within to achieve a satisfactory explanation. All such things could coexist with this theory, but they’re not needed.

What argues against such explanations of unknown government misdeeds is not the degree of evilness. Remember, we’re talking about a government that has used 911 as an excuse to destroy whole countries and kill upwards of a million human beings. Blowing up a couple of buildings is perfectly acceptable to most people who would launch wars. The exception is anyone whose sincere nationalism actually makes them value U.S. lives while considering non-U.S. lives to be worthless. But, remember, we’re talking about the U.S. government. They send U.S. troops off to kill and die in the process of slaughtering the foreigners. They allow millions in the U.S. to die for lack of basic services while they dump funding into war preparations. Dick Cheney contemplated a proposal to stage a shooting of U.S. troops disguised as Iranians. The Joint Chiefs of Staff approved Operation Northwoods, which would have murdered Americans to frame Cuba. At question is not level of evil, but particular level of competent engagement in particular acts of evil.

Jeffries’ book mixes a half century of well-documented crimes with pure speculation. I don’t think the inclusion in a book of dubious conspiracies should hurt the inclusion of likely ones. If we aren’t open to questioning everything, we’ll miss lots of things. But it’s simply not possible that every unusual plane crash over a period of decades has been an assassination. At least one or two of them must have been accidents. That Jeffries throws in completely random silliness, such as that Janet Reno was rumored to be gay (so what?) or that a couple killed on 911 had been married at the Vatican (gasp!), or that he thinks the Institute for Policy Studies is part of the elite establishment, doesn’t mean that Lee Harvey Oswald actually killed Kennedy. I think we have to look at every case seriously and go where the evidence leads. I think that our approach should be: Distrust but verify. Begin with the assumption that the government is lying, and see if it can prove itself honest.

When I read that Karl Rove views religion as a useful tool for manipulating the gullible or that Bill Clinton had a seat on a jet known for providing sex with underage girls, I don’t think such gossip is as significant as trade, energy, and war policies that will result in millions of deaths. But I don’t think the public interest in such stories is completely beside the point either. “Whether important policy decisions are made at Bohemian Grove or not,” writes Jeffries, “it is at the very least disturbing to know that our leaders are gathering together to worship a massive owl, dress in robes, and recite occult incantations.” Is it? We just had a president who openly said God had told him to attack Afghanistan and Iraq. Who cares if he worships an owl, unless it was the owl who told him that? But it is disturbing because of the secrecy. Politicians who will pretend they want to end wars or tax billionaires whenever they’re in the minority and in no danger of actually doing it are politicians with contempt for you and me; they are people who believe they are above us and can, like Henry V, make their own laws. Of course Michael Hastings’ death could have been an accident, but to assume so, and to suggest that investigating it as a murder would be loony is to demonstrate a remarkable ignorance of history.  Recently, with each new FBI terror plot foiled and celebrated, I’ve assumed it would be shown to have been a case of entrapment in which the FBI encouraged the crime before preventing it. In each case, I’ve been right. That doesn’t mean that tomorrow the FBI won’t capture a terrorist it had nothing to do with creating; it just means: Distrust but verify.

Distrusting may have started with Kennedy’s assassination, even if the need for distrusting today can be advanced further through an honest retelling of Pearl Harbor, and myths of losing innocence ought by all rights to go back to the genocide of the Native Americans if not to the agricultural revolution. Hidden History is not where I think people should start reading about Kennedy (James Douglass’s book might be better). But I learned new things about Kennedy from Hidden History and think we should all consider Jeffries’ remark: “[O]nce I realized that the president of the United States could be killed in broad daylight, without a single high-ranking public official questioning what really happened, and without any supposed journalist having the slightest curiosity about the subject, I understood that anything was possible.”

Jeffries’ book roams chronologically through a long list of scandals. He briefly mentions numerous outrages that are not really in dispute: Northwoods, Tonkin, Mongoose, Mockingbird, MK-Ultra, Cointelpro,  Fred Hampton, etc., etc. He focuses at greater length on a smaller number of possible conspiracies, providing good summaries of what’s known about the killing of JFK and RFK in particular. On Chappaquiddick he’s less convincing, on the October Surprise he’s vague and truly bizarre (but could have been completely convincing as I think the evidence is well established). He strays into economics and politics and general corruption, speculates on AIDS, Vince Foster, Oklahoma City, etc. His sections on JFK Jr. and on the Anthrax scare are of interest, I think.

Do the surveillance state and the proliferation of private cameras end these mysteries? Imagine Kennedy shot in Dallas today. The video footage would be voluminous, and it would be around the world on the internet before the blood dried. But imagine Abdulrahman al Awlaki’s killing today. Much of the world doesn’t have the same technology one could expect in Dallas. And imagine Eric Garner’s killing today. We have the video, but we’re told not to believe our lying eyes. What could end bad government — as well as misplaced suspicions of bad government — would be open government, including the elimination of secret agencies. And what could accomplish that would be if the public, including Jeffrey Sterling’s jury, assumed that anything the CIA said was more than likely a lie.

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  • paul kane

    On the one hand, there are a lot of folks who are far too obsessed with conspiracy theories, to the point where they ignore what is out in the open for us to see. Most of the story is visible without knowing the background soap operas. But there are also far too many supposedly wise owls who ignore and even sneer at conspiracy theories (Noam Chomsky!). This too is folly. We DO need to try to figure out what is going on behind the closed doors and who is involved and what their game is.

  • dmorista

    There is no question that elites run covert and/or “false flag” operations to achieve important aims that are difficult to accomplish through the standard visible state structures. Thus the assassination of JFK and RFK can be viewed in this way; the reactionary right with its Texas oilman types and the old button-down spooks of the CIA/Wall Street nexus, saw 24 years of Kennedys as presidents, leading to a more enlightened variant of Capitalism and a society that would resemble a European Social Democracy, something they were loathe to see. Likewise the events of 9-11 are tied into a cast of interest groups, in this case foreign and domestic, that stood to gain huge fortunes and achieve massive political and geostrategic objectives that were not within reach through regular political methods. In both cases the numerous anomalies, mysterious deaths of witnesses and investigators, smear campaigns, and massive cover-up operations are the further evidence of deep state activity.

    At the other end of the scale we have things like “chem trails” or the “black helicopters” from the U.N. taking over. Proponents breathlessly discuss the conspiracy to poison us all or some other weird amorphous objective, requiring efforts by thousands of people without any real specific gain to well placed groups. Somewhere in the middle is where it gets difficult to distinguish between covert operations and the general violence and mayhem that are part of human existence.

    But as always David Swanson makes good points here. The horrific actions taken in the open, with evident glee and often gloating over the victims are enough to give one the creeps. The U.S. is in a special class as to the exuberance of the cruelty of its ruling class; a hegemonic power much of whose ruling class thinks they have divine justification for their actions.

    • All Wars are Bankers’ Wars November 20, 2014

      The purpose of war, according to this brief documentary by radio host Michael Rivero, is to force central banks on countries that try to issue their own money. He makes a compelling argument, illustrated by numerous historical examples. The film’s main value, in my view, is in dispelling common misconceptions about where money comes from. Contrary to popular belief, western democracies don’t issue the money they use to run government services. They borrow the money at interest from privately owned central banks. In the US, this private central bank is called the Federal Reserve.


      • dmorista

        Thank you for the link. Veterans Today is a very interesting and surprising website, not afraid to post controversial articles. Bankers, (and here let’s qualify it a bit and say banksters who should be defined as the powerful international bankers, the “investment” bankers who speculate and gamble with various types of “imaginary” capital, all the while making sure that their profits are privatized but the risks of loss when their gambles don’t turn out well are socialized) have long had a very powerful influence, and clearly many persuasive authors argue a decisive influence, on the affairs of many nations throughout history. I, for one, will agree that they are as influential as any other power center and frequently are the most influential. It is a certainty, for instance, that the entrance of the U.S. into WW 1, on the side of the allies was engineered by J.P. Morgan and other banking interests who had lent quite a bit of money to the British and the French, and stood to suffer major losses should the war not turn out well for them. This was managed despite the fact that the U.S. population at the time actually had more people of Irish and German descent than of English descent, and sentiment towards the Allies was no foregone conclusion. Overall, this is no trivial matter, while WW 2 is far the more interesting from a military history standpoint, many historians consider the two wars to actually be one hegemonic war, with a shaky 21 year truce. And actually geostrategically WW 1 is more important as it set the stage for all that followed.

        I do feel that ascribing all events to one cause obscures understanding of the overall situation. Financial interests become more powerful, in the mix of Capitalist forces within a hegemonic state and world system, as the leading state of a capitalist system starts to weaken and becomes less competitive in actually producing goods and services. So now we see the U.S., the majority of whose population is now becoming relatively impoverished, but with extremely rich and powerful banking and financial interests who, intricately intertwined with the other economic power centers, are basically running the country without much hindrance from the general populace. In the wake of the 2007-2008 financial crisis these interests milked the U.S. treasury for up to 28 trillion dollars in actual funds, guarantees, and other commitments according to some sources (even Bloomberg News put the figure at something like 12 – 13 trillion as of a few years ago). Just where did that “money” come from, did some fabulous new mines open up yielding platinum and gold, or revolutionary technologies come forth from the U.S. economy, no certainly not. A few keystrokes at the privately owned and controlled Federal Reserve “created” the dollars and “injected” them into the accounts of influential banksters. It is possible to do positive things with “Fiat” money, creating money however always has the side effect of cheapening the money of those poor saps who were foolish enough to work and save. If fiat money is used to rebuild the infrastructure, establish new educational and training opportunities for the population, then the price is worth it. When the money is given to the rich and powerful to cover their losses and to loan back to the government it has all the negative effects and none of the positive ones. Of course, we have seen the second phenomenon and are likely to see a repeat, and maybe very soon, if the flaky financing of the fracking and tar sands oil and gas booms comes unglued.

        We live at a particularly pivotal time right now. Not only is the U.S., and its Capitalist leadership, in serious decline (clearly the wealthy have been in the process of getting their assets out of the carcass of the U.S. for decades now), but rather than see another “Western” society take over Capitalist leadership it is obvious that East Asia is, and has been for decades now, in the ascendance.

        Human societies struggle for the control of resources. The major players in these struggles are now transnational corporations, that adroitly use the national states with which they are affiliated for support. The truly wealthy, and that clearly includes banking interests, wear their nationality like clothing, to be taken up or discarded according to the situation that pertains at any given time.

        • Here is what most do not know as well while moving Forward!

          Saturday 25 September 2004.

          George Bush’s grandfather, the late US senator Prescott Bush, was a director and shareholder of companies that profited from their involvement with the financial backers of Nazi Germany. The Guardian has obtained confirmation from newly discovered files in the US National Archives that a firm of which Prescott Bush was a director was involved with the financial architects of Nazism.


  • This should give folks better insight!

    Personal Finances In some ways, lawmakers’ finances look a lot like those of many Americans. They include diverse portfolios of stocks, bonds, mutual funds and real estate. They have bank accounts, credit cards and mortgages. The difference: Politicians generally have more money and – unlike most people they represent – they must make their investments public. Another difference: Politicians, during the course of their official duties, routinely have access to non-public information. The STOCK Act, which passed in April of 2012, sought to clarify ambiguous insider trading regulations. Read more about the STOCK Act and explore the Personal Financial Disclosures (PFDs) below.


  • Rehmat

    CIA has dragged its whistleblower Jeffrey Alexander Sterling, an Afro-American, into court for giving classified information to journalist James Risen about a CIA operation that provided Iran with flawed nuclear weapon blueprints – information that appeared in Risen’s 2006 book, State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration. James Risen (Jewish) is reporter with the New York Times, an Israeli Hasbara (propaganda) newspaper.


  • Big Bear

    Actually there was considerable questioning of Pearl Harbor at the time, including in Congress and some of the press, but it was shouted down by the initial war hysteria (as intended) and then stonewalled and later erased from what gets passed of as “history” by hired education and the kept press.