All posts by Ben Norton

US Congressional Panel Outlines Next Phase of Dirty War on Syria: Occupy Oil Fields and Block Reconstruction

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Despite President Donald Trump’s order of a partial withdrawal of troops from Syria, the United States’ regime-change war against the country continues in broad daylight.

At a US government-funded think tank at the forefront of shaping Washington’s interventionist designs, an American official succinctly laid out the continued-regime change strategy.

Dana Stroul, a longtime US diplomat who oversaw a congressionally mandated study of Syria, outlined the four-pronged plan for what she called the “new phase” of the war:

- US military occupation of Syria’s “resource-rich” “economic powerhouse”;
- “Diplomatic isolation” of the Syrian government;
- Economic sanctions against Damascus and its allies; and
- “Preventing reconstruction aid and technical expertise from going back into Syria.”

It is beyond debate that this approach will lead to massive suffering, privation, and even the deaths of masses of Syrian. But when Stroul presented it before a panel, the potential impact on civilians was was not even mentioned once.

This disturbing plan was articulated on October 31 at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a militaristic think tank funded by the US government and its allies, along with the arms industry, fossil fuel corporations, and banks. In April, The Grayzone’s Max Blumenthal exposed a secret meeting at CSIS where US and Latin American officials mulled a military invasion of Venezuela. Though it was open to the public, the think tank’s recent meeting on Syria was no less militaristic.

Titled “Syria in the Gray Zone,” the panel featured the two co-chairs of the Syria Study Group, a bi-partisan working group appointed by Congress to draft a new US war plan for Syria. One co-chair was chosen to represent the Republican Party, and the other to represent the Democratic Party, but both marched in lockstep agreement in support of continued war on Syria, and their views were virtually indistinguishable.

Both of the congressionally appointed co-chairs also happen to work at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), a pro-Israel think tank that grew out of the AIPAC lobbying juggernaut. Their Syria Study Group was a collection of hardline interventionists from pro-Israel and Gulf monarchy-funded DC think tanks, as well as Mark Kirk, the former Republican senator who was one of the all-time greatest recipients of funding from Israel lobbying outfits.

Dana Stroul, the Democratic co-chair of the Syria Study Group, is a longtime US government operative who has spent years drafting Middle East policy. While serving on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, she oversaw US weapons sales and foreign aid for the State Department and Washington’s soft-power arm, the US Agency for International Development (USAID).

In her speech at CSIS, Stroul sketched out the ongoing regime-change strategy, summarizing the points made in the Syria Study Group final report in September.
US military ‘owns’ one-third of Syria, ‘the rest is rubble’

Dana Stroul reluctantly acknowledged that “there’s limited appetite domestically here” for more US intervention in Syria. But she noted that the American regime-change war is far from over.

Resorting to classically colonial rhetoric, Stroul casually noted that “one-third of Syrian territory was owned via the US military, with its local partner the Syrian Democratic Forces.”

She made it a point to stress that this sovereign Syrian land “owned” by Washington also happened to be “resource-rich,” the “economic powerhouse of Syria, so where the hydrocarbons are… as well as the agricultural powerhouse.”

Neocolonial-style military occupation occupation was to be complimented by a political siege of the Syrian government, Stroul explained.

Calling for the “political and diplomatic isolation of the Assad regime,” Stroul urged the US to continue “holding the line on diplomatic isolation, preventing embassies from going back into Damascus.”

She then advised ramping up of the “economic sanctions architecture.”

Finally, Stroul proposed leveraging reconstruction aid as a tool against the Syrian government.

Noting that the US government’s humanitarian aid and “stabilization assistance” for Syria has gone to its ally, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the northeast, Stroul urged the US to keep the rest of the country in ruins until it achieved its goal of regime change.

“The rest of Syria though is rubble,” Stroul stated. “And what the Russians want and what Assad wants is economic reconstruction. And that is something that the United States can basically hold a card on, via the international financial institutions and our cooperation with the Europeans.”

Emphasizing that Washington’s goal in has been to block reconstruction by Damascus, Stroul insisted, “We should hold a line on preventing reconstruction aid and technical expertise from going back into Syria.”

‘The conflict is not over; it’s entering a new phase’

President Trump’s Syria policy largely mirrors the sadistic strategy outlined by Stroul at the Syrian Study Group.

In October, Trump ordered a partial withdrawal of US troops from northeastern Syria, inspiring a chorus of outrage in official Washington. He ultimately left hundreds of soldiers to occupy Syria’s oil and gas-rich region, to starve the Syrian government of funding needed for reconstruction efforts.

“We’re keeping the oil. I’ve always said that – keep the oil,” Trump explained. “We may have to fight for the oil. It’s ok. Maybe somebody else wants the oil, in which case they have a hell of a fight. But there’s massive amounts of oil.”

Trump added, “We should be able to take some also, and what I intend to do, perhaps, is make a deal with an ExxonMobil or one of our great companies to go in there and do it properly.”

At the CSIS panel, Dana Stroul argued that even with the US military presence in flux, “the other forms of leverage remain compelling.”

“If we’re going to hold the line on the diplomatic isolation, on moving forward with the economic sanctions architecture, and holding the line on reconstruction aid, perhaps those things could still be compelling,” she said.

“Because in our view, what our assessment was was that the conflict has not changed; the conflict is not over; it’s entering a new phase,” Stroul added.

The Republican co-chair of the Syria Study Group Michael Singh, who is also a fellow at the pro-Israel WINEP think tank, echoed Stroul’s argument. “We still have leverage,” he said. Although Trump’s proposed withdrawal has weakened it.

“I’ve been critical the decision to withdraw; I think it was the wrong decision,” Singh explained. “But I think that case can be overstated. I don’t think that Russia, the Assad regime, Iran, now have sort of an easy path to victory, or even an easy path to consolidating control, whether in northeast Syria or elsewhere.”
Transcript

A transcript of Stroul’s comments at the CSIS panel follows below:
We argued in our recommendation section that, taken as a whole, even though in the United States, there’s limited appetite domestically here or on the hill to match the level of resources or even diplomatic investment of the Iranians and the Russians in Syria, that the United States still had compelling forms of leverage on the table to shape an outcome that was more conducive and protective of US interests.

And we identified four. So the first one was the one-third of Syrian territory that was owned via the US military, with its local partner the Syrian Democratic Forces. Now this was a light footprint on the US military, only about a thousand troops over the course of the Syria Study Group’s report, and then the tens of thousands of forces, both Kurdish and Arab, under the Syrian Democratic Forces.

And that one-third of Syria is the resource-rich, it’s the economic powerhouse of Syria, so where the hydrocarbons are, which obviously is very much in the public debate here in Washington these days, as well as the agricultural powerhouse.

But we argued that it wasn’t just about this one-third of Syrian territory that the US military and our military presence owned, both to fight ISIS and also as leverage for affecting the the overall political process for the broader Syrian conflict. There were three other areas of leverage.

One is political and diplomatic isolation of the Assad regime… So holding the line on diplomatic isolation, preventing embassies from going back into Damascus.

Two is the economic sanctions architecture. So some of this is part of the maximum-pressure campaign of the Trump administration on Iran, but there’s a whole suite of both executive and congressional sanctions on Syria and Bashar al-Assad, both for human rights abuses in Syria and to the backers of Assad for their activities in support of him in Syria.

And three was reconstruction aid. So the United States remains the overall largest single donor of humanitarian aid to Syrians both inside Syria and refugees outside of Syria. And there was some stabilization assistance in the part of Syria that was liberated from ISIS and controlled via the Syrian Democratic Forces in northern-eastern Syria.

The rest of Syria though is rubble. And what the Russians want and what Assad wants is economic reconstruction. And that is something that the United States can basically hold a card on, via the international financial institutions and our cooperation with the Europeans.

So we argued that absent behavioral changes by the Assad regime, we should hold a line on preventing reconstruction aid and technical expertise from going back into Syria.

So now in the past month it looked like one of the most compelling forms of leverage, which was this US military presence, was taken off the table quite fast. Now … the news suggests that maybe that military presence will stay for some period of time.

And the problem with this is no matter what the US military presence is or isn’t, at this point a lot of the the PR damage is done. So if you’re trying to get allies and partners in Europe or otherwise to work with our US military in completing the fight against ISIS, most countries are going to be unwilling or hesitant to contribute more than they already have, because they can’t plan on the United States. Because this is like the third time that decisions have come out of Washington in a rather unplanned manner about whether or not the US military is staying.

Mike and I have argued recently that the other forms of leverage remain compelling, if resourced effectively and prioritized at the highest levels of the US government.

So if we’re going to hold the line on the diplomatic isolation, on moving forward with the economic sanctions architecture, and holding the line on reconstruction aid, perhaps those things could still be compelling, because in our view, what our assessment was was that the conflict has not changed; the conflict is not over; it’s entering a new phase.
Reprinted with permission from The Grayzone Project.

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NY Times Admits it Sends Stories to US Government for Approval Before Publication

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The New York Times has publicly acknowledged that it sends some of its stories to the US government for approval from “national security officials” before publication.

This confirms what veteran New York Times correspondents like James Risen have said: The American newspaper of record regularly collaborates with the US government, suppressing reporting that top officials don’t want made public.

On June 15, the Times reported that the US government is escalating its cyber attacks on Russia’s power grid. According to the article, “the Trump administration is using new authorities to deploy cybertools more aggressively,” as part of a larger “digital Cold War between Washington and Moscow.”

In response to the report, Donald Trump attacked the Times on Twitter, calling the article “a virtual act of Treason.”

The New York Times PR office replied to Trump from its official Twitter account, defending the story and noting that it had, in fact, been cleared with the US government before being printed.

“Accusing the press of treason is dangerous,” the Times communications team said. “We described the article to the government before publication.”

“As our story notes, President Trump’s own national security officials said there were no concerns,” the Times added.
Indeed, the Times report on the escalating American cyber attacks against Russia is attributed to “current and former [US] government officials.” The scoop in fact came from these apparatchiks, not from a leak or the dogged investigation of an intrepid reporter.

‘Real’ journalists get approval from ‘national security’ officials

The neoliberal self-declared “Resistance” jumped on Trump’s reckless accusation of treason (the Democratic Coalition, which boasts, “We help run #TheResistance,” responded by calling Trump “Putin’s puppet”). The rest of the corporate media went wild.

But what was entirely overlooked was the most revealing thing in the New York Times’ statement: The newspaper of record was essentially admitting that it has a symbiotic relationship with the US government.

In fact, some prominent American pundits have gone so far as to insist that this symbiotic relationship is precisely what makes someone a journalist.

In May, neoconservative Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen — a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush — declared that WikiLeaks publisher and political prisoner Julian Assange is “not a journalist”; rather, he is a “spy” who “deserves prison.” (Thiessen also once called Assange “the devil.”)

What was the Post columnist’s rationale for revoking Assange’s journalistic credentials?

Unlike "reputable news organizations, Assange did not give the US government an opportunity to review the classified information WikiLeaks was planning to release so they could raise national security objections," Thiessen wrote. “So responsible journalists have nothing to fear.”

In other words, this former US government speechwriter turned corporate media pundit insists that collaborating with the government, and censoring your reporting to protect so-called “national security,” is definitionally what makes you a journalist.

This is the express ideology of the American commentariat.
NY Times editors ‘quite willing to cooperate with the government’

The symbiotic relationship between the US corporate media and the government has been known for some time. American intelligence agencies play the press like a musical instrument, using it it to selectively leak information at opportune moments to push US soft power and advance Washington’s interests.

But rarely is this symbiotic relationship so casually and publicly acknowledged.

In 2018, former New York Times reporter James Risen published a 15,000-word article in The Intercept providing further insight into how this unspoken alliance operates.
Risen detailed how his editors had been “quite willing to cooperate with the government.” In fact, a top CIA official even told Risen that his rule of thumb for approving a covert operation was, “How will this look on the front page of the New York Times?”

There is an “informal arrangement” between the state and the press, Risen explained, where US government officials “regularly engaged in quiet negotiations with the press to try to stop the publication of sensitive national security stories.”

“At the time, I usually went along with these negotiations,” the former New York Times reported said. He recalled an example of a story he was writing on Afghanistan just prior to the September 11, 2001 attacks. Then-CIA Director George Tenet called Risen personally and asked him to kill the story.

“He told me the disclosure would threaten the safety of the CIA officers in Afghanistan,” Risen said. “I agreed.”

Risen said he later questioned whether or not this was the right decision. “If I had reported the story before 9/11, the CIA would have been angry, but it might have led to a public debate about whether the United States was doing enough to capture or kill bin Laden,” he wrote. “That public debate might have forced the CIA to take the effort to get bin Laden more seriously.”

This dilemma led Risen to reconsider responding to US government requests to censor stories. “And that ultimately set me on a collision course with the editors at the New York Times,” he said.

“After the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration began asking the press to kill stories more frequently,” Risen continued. “They did it so often that I became convinced the administration was invoking national security to quash stories that were merely politically embarrassing.”
In the lead-up to the Iraq War, Risen frequently “clashed” with Times editors because he raised questions about the US government’s lies. But his stories “stories raising questions about the intelligence, particularly the administration’s claims of a link between Iraq and Al Qaeda, were being cut, buried, or held out of the paper altogether.”

The Times’ executive editor Howell Raines “was believed by many at the paper to prefer stories that supported the case for war,” Risen said.

In another anecdote, the former Times journalist recalled a scoop he had uncovered on a botched CIA plot. The Bush administration got wind of it and called him to the White House, where then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice ordered the Times to bury the story.

Risen said Rice told him “to forget about the story, destroy my notes, and never make another phone call to discuss the matter with anyone.”

“The Bush administration was successfully convincing the press to hold or kill national security stories,” Risen wrote. And the Barack Obama administration subsequently accelerated the “war on the press.”

CIA media infiltration and manufacturing consent

In their renowned study of US media, “Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media,” Edward S. Herman and Chomsky articulated a “propaganda model,” showing how “the media serve, and propagandize on behalf of, the powerful societal interests that control and finance them,” through “the selection of right-thinking personnel and by the editors’ and working journalists’ internalization of priorities and definitions of newsworthiness that conform to the institution’s policy.”

But in some cases, the relationship between US intelligence agencies and the corporate media is not just one of mere ideological policing, indirect pressure, or friendship, but rather one of employment.

In the 1950s, the CIA launched a covert operation called Project Mockingbird, in which it surveilled, influenced, and manipulated American journalists and media coverage, explicitly in order to direct public opinion against the Soviet Union, China, and the growing international communist movement.

Legendary journalist Carl Bernstein, a former Washington Post reporter who helped uncover the Watergate scandal, published a major cover story for Rolling Stone in 1977 titled “The CIA and the Media: How America’s Most Powerful News Media Worked Hand in Glove with the Central Intelligence Agency and Why the Church Committee Covered It Up.”

Bernstein obtained CIA documents that revealed that more than 400 American journalists in the previous 25 years had “secretly carried out assignments for the Central Intelligence Agency.”

Bernstein wrote:
Some of these journalists’ relationships with the Agency were tacit; some were explicit. There was cooperation, accommodation and overlap. Journalists provided a full range of clandestine services—from simple intelligence gathering to serving as go‑betweens with spies in Communist countries. Reporters shared their notebooks with the CIA. Editors shared their staffs. Some of the journalists were Pulitzer Prize winners, distinguished reporters who considered themselves ambassadors without‑portfolio for their country. Most were less exalted: foreign correspondents who found that their association with the Agency helped their work; stringers and freelancers who were as interested in the derring‑do of the spy business as in filing articles; and, the smallest category, full‑time CIA employees masquerading as journalists abroad. In many instances, CIA documents show, journalists were engaged to perform tasks for the CIA with the consent of the managements of America’s leading news organizations.
Virtually all major US media outlets cooperated with the CIA, Bernstein revealed, including ABC, NBC, the AP, UPI, Reuters, Newsweek, Hearst newspapers, the Miami Herald, the Saturday Evening Post, and the New York Herald‑Tribune.

However, he added, “By far the most valuable of these associations, according to CIA officials, have been with the New York Times, CBS and Time Inc.”

These layers of state manipulation, censorship, and even direct crafting of the news media show that, as much as they claim to be independent, The New York Times and other outlets effectively serve as de facto spokespeople for the government — or at least for the US national security state.

Reprinted with permission from The Grayzone Project.

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Top US Journalists Spread Fake News Claiming North Korean Official Was ‘Purged’ – Then He Shows Up on TV

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The corporate media’s editorial standards for reporting on Official Enemies of the US government, especially North Korea, are as low as ever. Blatantly false stories are regularly circulated by leading news outlets without any kind of accountability.

In the latest example of fake news disseminated without any hint of skepticism by America’s top journalists, virtually every major media outlet reported that a senior North Korean official named Kim Yong-chol was supposedly forced into a “labor camp,” as part of a larger deadly “purge.”

Two days later, that same official turned up alive at a public art performance, seated next to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Bloomberg kicked off the fake news frenzy on May 30 by publishing a report claiming, “North Korea executed its former top nuclear envoy to the US and four other foreign ministry officials in March after a failed summit between Kim and Donald Trump.”

Bloomberg’s source for this false story was South Korea’s far-right newspaper Chosun Ilbo, which has a long history of fabricating stories about North Korea. In turn, Chosun Ilbo’s story was based on a single unidentified source.

That is to say, the fake report obediently echoed by the Western press corps was based entirely on the claims of one unnamed person.

This obvious lack of evidence did not stop credulous reporters from jumping on the sensationalist propaganda. The false story was circulated by The New York Times, Reuters, The Wall Street Journal, The Hill, The Daily Beast, Fox News, CNBC, TIME, ABC News, The Financial Times, The Telegraph, VICE, Rolling Stone, The Independent, The Washington Times, The New York Post, HuffPost, France 24, The Japan Times, Haaretz, The Times of Israel, Democracy Now, the US government’s Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, and many more.
Twitter even went out of its way to create a shareable Moment based on the fake news.
Careful readers (only a small percentage of total readers) might have noticed that Bloomberg quietly admitted in its original report, “Previous South Korean media reports about senior North Korean officials being executed following the talks have proven false.” But this concession didn’t stop the rest of the corporate media from running with this fake story.

On June 2, the commentariat’s favorite fable fell apart: North Korea’s nuclear negotiator Kim Yong-chol showed up on state media, sitting a few seats away from Kim Jong-un at a musical performance.

The Associated Press, Reuters, The New York Times, and CNNquickly published new reports making light of the news — but none of these contained mea culpas or official retractions.

As of June 3, the vast majority of blatantly false reports published in dozens of outlets remain uncorrected.

The Grayzone has documented the long history of the US corporate media printing cartoonish lies about North Korea(officially known as the DPRK), especially in the form of execution stories that are quickly debunked. (The New York Times once even cited an obvious parody Twitter account as if it were the DPRK’s real state media.)

A few actual experts on Korea did raise concerns about the latest hoax. Among them was veteran reporter Tim Shorrock, who has spent decades reporting on Korea, and who joined prominent peace activists Christine Ahn and Simone Chun in questioning the bogus story.
Shorrock cautioned on May 31, “It’s important to keep tabs on this one, which if uncorroborated could turn out to be one of the biggest fiascos in journalism history.”

As usual, Shorrock was right — but he was an outlier whose critical thinking was drowned out by a mob of mainstream pundits.

Below is a list of some of the top journalists in the US corporate media and political class, including ostensible “progressives,” who spread this blatantly false story. Many of these self-styled progressives promoted the hoax in hopes of embarrassing Donald Trump for embarking on a historic peace process with the DPRK.

Journalists and activists who spread the fake news

Chris Hayes, a media celebrity and MSNBC host who used the fake news to get in a cheap joke about Trump
Julia Ioffe, a prominent journalist, GQ Magazine correspondent, and so-called “Russia expert”
Yashar Ali, a contributor to New York Magazine and the Huffington Post and liberal mini-celebrity
Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for The New York Times and an analyst for MSNBC
Jon Cooper, the chairman of the Democratic Coalition Against Trump, which proudly boasts, “We help run #TheResistance”
Katie Phang, a legal contributor for NBC and MSNBC
David Roberts, a reporter for Vox
Caroline Orr, a neoliberal “Resistance” influencer who rose to prominence by pumping up the Russiagate narrative
Oz Katerji, a rabid pro-military intervention regime-change activist dedicated to harassing anti-imperialists online
Josh Smith, a Reuters senior correspondent covering North and South Korea
Vivian Salama, a White House reporter for the Wall Street Journal, who previously worked as AP’s Baghdad bureau chief
Matt Bevan, the host and writer of ABC News Australia’s “Russia, If You’re Listening” podcast
Kaitlan Collins, a CNN White House reporter
Geoff Bennett, a White House correspondent for NBC News
Andrew Desiderio, a political reporter at Politico
David Nakamura, a Washington Post reporter
Amy Siskind, a prominent liberal anti-Trump activist and former Wall Street executive
Steve Silberman, a longtime writer for Wired Magazine
Rare exceptions

There were a few exceptions to the norm. Some reporters who specialize on Korea did raise concerns, pointing out South Korean media outlets have a long history of publishing false stories about the DPRK.
These warnings, however, were ignored.
Reprinted with permission from The Grayzone.

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