All posts by Michael Howard

Assange and the Cowardice of Power

Donald Trump has never heard of WikiLeaks, the publishing organization whose work he repeatedly and unequivocally touted during the 2016 election campaign. “I know nothing about WikiLeaks,” he told reporters after Julian Assange was illegally arrested, after being illegally detained for seven years, in London. “It’s not my thing and I know there is something having to do with Julian Assange.”

Moving past the Trumpian paradox (he knows both “nothing” and “something” about WikiLeaks”), here’s a question for our dear leader: is your own Justice Department “your thing”? Because it was your Justice Department that filed the charges against a man who risked his liberty, and his life, to tell the truth about the most powerful criminal syndicate in the world—the American empire.

Is Trump’s cabinet “his thing”? Was he out golfing when his erstwhile attorney general, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, told the press that arresting Assange was “a priority”? How about when his secretary of state called WikiLeaks “a non-state hostile intelligence service”? Trump’s regime appears to have a remarkable level of interest in an organization about which he knows nothing.

“The weakness of the US charge against Assange is shocking.” That was Edward Snowden’s reaction to the Justice Department’s indictment against Assange. He adds that one of the government’s principal allegations—that Assange attempted to help Manning crack a password in the interest of protecting her identity—has been public knowledge for nearly ten years. Also that Obama, no friend to whistle-blowers, refused to act on it, citing dangers to press freedom.

For those who haven’t read the indictment, please do. It won’t take ten minutes, and it will give you an idea of how far the US government is willing to go to punish those brave enough to expose its sins.

The case against Assange (for now) boils down to this: he allegedly took measures to protect the identity of his source and allegedly encouraged his source to find and pass along more information about American criminality in Iraq and Afghanistan. This, as various journalists have pointed out, is standard journalistic practice. Would Nixon have been nailed by Watergate if Woodward and Bernstein hadn’t repeatedly gone back to their source for further evidence of the president’s malfeasance?

Speaking of Woodward, Snowden reminds us that he (Woodward) “stated publicly he would have advised me to remain in place and act as a mole.” If only Assange had done that—maybe the indictment would carry a little more drama. But all he allegedly did was say, in response to Manning’s claim that she didn’t have any more documents to share, that “curious eyes never run dry in my experience.” The horror!

The allegation that Assange conspired with Manning to gain unauthorized access to a government computer is equally underwhelming and misleading. Manning had authorized access to the secret documents she leaked: what Assange did was try to help her access them from a different username. If successful (it apparently wasn’t), this effort would not have given Manning access to any additional files—it merely would have ensured, or at least enhanced, her anonymity.

FYI: Manning has been locked up in Alexandria, Virginia for more than a month now, spending most of that time in solitary confinement, for refusing to testify against WikiLeaks and Assange in front of a secret grand jury.

Chiming in from her ivory tower, Hillary Clinton joined Democratic and Republican lawmakers in gloating about Assange’s unlawful arrest: “The bottom line is he has to answer for what he has done, at least as it’s been charged.”

We know what he’s been charged with; now let’s recall what he has actually done. Using time-honored journalistic methods, he shone a hard light on crimes routinely committed by the American empire in the name of the American people—crimes that would otherwise have remained concealed behind an iron curtain of government deception and media complicity.

“On the morning of July 12, 2007, two Apache helicopters using 30mm cannon fire killed about a dozen people in the Iraqi suburb of New Baghdad. Two children were also wounded. Although some of the men appear to have been armed, the behavior of nearly everyone was relaxed. The US military initially claimed that all the dead were ‘anti-Iraqi forces’ or ‘insurgents.’”

That’s the preface to Collateral Murder, the notorious video published by WikiLeaks showing American troops firing on a group of people standing around in the street. Two of them were Reuters journalists; both of them were killed. “Ha ha ha, I hit ‘em,” one soldier chuckles after the first round of fire. “Oh yeah, look at those dead bastards,” another says, to which another responds, “Nice. Good shootin’.”

The video, more disturbing to your average person than a sterile civilian casualties report, illustrates why the Military Tribunal at Nuremberg named “military aggression,” not genocide, as the “supreme international crime”: because it establishes a context in which murder becomes not only commonplace, but banal. At the end of that road lies Auschwitz.

Crimes like the one depicted in Collateral Murder are facilitated and rendered acceptable by crimes of a much greater magnitude, like Bush’s invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

What Julian Assange did—what Hillary Clinton says “he has to answer for”—is show people the consequences of their governments’ actions, so that maybe one day individuals like Hillary Clinton will be stripped of their impunity and made to answer for what they have done. That is the quintessence of journalism and, according to the United States, an intolerable crime. Behold the cowardice of power.

As for the UK’s role in this charade, while it has long been clear that London is a faithful servant of the American empire, extraditing Assange to the US—whereupon new and more serious charges will almost certainly be leveled against him—would mark a new depth of national disgrace.

At the time of his arrest Assange was reportedly clutching in his hand a book by Gore Vidal. In a 2009 interview with The Independent, an octogenarian Vidal was asked for his thoughts on modern England. “This isn’t a country,” he said, “it’s an American aircraft carrier.” Indeed.

PC Torture?

Everyone’s favorite progressive newspaper, the New York Times, is hard at work making up for those dark days of old when it served as cultural gatekeeper of The Patriarchy. “Since 1851, the New York Times has published thousands of obituaries,” the paper writes on its website. “The vast majority chronicled the lives of men, mostly white ones.” In view of that, the Times has begun to correct the record, one week at a time, by publishing retroactive obituaries of non-men whose lives, and deaths, were ignored by the old guard. The series is called “Overlooked.”

Last October I wrote an essay documenting the Times‘ support for the exploitation, torture and murder of animals, for whom it evidently reserves a fervent, blood-thirsty hatred. Thus its former chief art critic saw fit to liken the act of stabbing bulls to death to composing jazz music. Bullfighting, dog and horse racing, “dead goat polo”: so long as animals are being abused, the Times is amused. All the more if the abuse happens to be dished out by a woman.

In a recent episode of “Overlooked,” the Times honors Mabel Stark, “one of the most celebrated animal trainers in a field dominated by men.” When Stark first caught sight of a tiger trapped in a cage outside a circus, she knew she’d found her niche. “Within a couple of years, she was one of the world’s top big cat trainers … commanding them in her chirpy voice to leap through fiery hoops, walk on wires, roll large balls and arrange themselves into pyramids.”

The Times points out that, over her sixty-year career, Mabel was mauled countless times “by her co-workers.” Similarly, in 1831, dozens of slave owners were attacked and killed by their co-workers in Nat Turner’s Rebellion.

After travelling around with various circus acts, including the infamous Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Baily Circus, Stark worked at a theme park/animal prison called Jungleland until she was fired in 1967. Five months later, a Jungleland tiger was shot to death after escaping from her cell, and within a few days Stark had killed herself with barbiturates. Pity.

In case you were wondering, Stark always trained the tigers “with kindness.” The hypocrites at the Times wrote that; do they believe it?

Thanks to the efforts of indefatigable animal rights organizations and activists, we know that the “train them with kindness” bromide is a shameless lie, similar to the “no animals were harmed” certification awarded to films by the corrupt American Humane Association.

A few years ago, PETA published an undercover video depicting a training session between animal trainer Michael Hackenberger, whose defunct zoo rented out animals for exploitation in TV and film, and a young Siberian tiger. Hackenberger curses at the tiger and then repeatedly whips him—twenty times in eleven seconds by my count—as the animal rolls around and cowers on the ground. “I like hitting him in the face,” Hackenberger says later in the video.

Whether or not the heroic Mabel Stark was as psychopathic and sadistic as Michael Hackenberger—maybe she was, maybe she wasn’t—is beside the point, which is that, before big cats and other “wild” animals can be used in show business, they have to be terrorized into docility. Jay Pratte, an expert in animal behavior and training, explained the process and its consequences in a 2016 article titled “Big-Cat Report: Ringling Bros. Circus (Red Unit).”

Pratte’s report draws on more than two decades of experience and research, as well as “direct, personal observations at two separate performances by the Ringling Bros.,” a longstanding act that has since, mercifully, been shut down.

The enclosures in which circus tigers are kept are akin to prison cells. When free, tigers roam hundreds of miles; on circus grounds, they’re confined to small cages. Solitary in nature, tigers become stressed and aggressive when held in close quarters with other tigers. During his visits to Ringling Bros., Pratte witnessed several aggressive confrontations between the cats, many of whom were obese due to a lack of proper exercise. As with other mammals, obesity in tigers leads to myriad health problems including organ failure, arthritis, respiratory illness, heart disease and joint problems.

When the weather is particularly hot, tigers regulate their body temperatures by moving to shady areas or plunging into pools or streams. At Ringling Bros., “there was little to no air movement to cool the animals, and in the afternoon, in particular, most of them were panting heavily and unwilling to move. At 2:30 p.m., the temperature was reported to be 86 degrees and the heat index was well over 90.”

In addition to being obese, many of the tigers at Ringling Bros. had visible injuries. “I observed several cats limping, walking gingerly and carefully to avoid painful jolts, and struggling actually to stand up or to perform cued behaviors during a show,” Pratte writes. “The heavier cats were panting constantly throughout the day and clearly enduring increased physical distress. A few of them had hygromas at their joints, some of which were severe. These are caused by repeated trauma from lying on hard surfaces.”

Most of the tigers had cracks in the pads on the bottoms of their paws from “constantly living on concrete or metal floors, which are hosed clean and remain wet for long periods of time.” Such cracks are extremely painful and regularly become infected.

Over time, the oppressive environmental factors lead to stereotypic behavior, or pointless, repetitious actions (e.g. pacing back and forth, over-grooming, etc.). “The animals are unable to express normal behaviors and therefore experience long periods of inactivity or mindless activity, which results in permanent [my emphasis] long-term changes to the body, brain, neural, and endocrine systems.”

Many cats exploited for human entertainment are stolen away from their mothers as cubs (the heroic Mabel Stark trained cubs, recall; recall also that she worked with Ringling Bros.) and raised in restrictive, unnatural circumstances that prevent the animals from developing critical survival, social and coping skills.

The primary tactics employed by trainers during the Ringling Bros. shows were “to yell at [the cats], bang on the cages, and use long goads, prods, or whips to force them to move in a specific direction or to back off when approaching another animal or human too closely. These prods are ubiquitous. They are in the trainers’ hands, the assistants carry them, and they are left strategically near the cats to remain readily available.” Presumably the editors at the Times would have no objection to volunteering to be incessantly whipped and prodded with these instruments, in order to demonstrate their innate kindness.

Pratte goes on to remark that “the cats’ postures while in the ring with the trainer(s) are indicative of a fear of consequences if they do not perform as coerced. The hunched shoulders, ears-back position is anticipatory of conflict or tension.” Ultimately, “staff members manage the cats using aversive stimuli, fear, and dominance tactics”—otherwise known as torture.

All of which was observed in 2016, when circuses and related institutions understood that they had come under intense scrutiny owing to heightened public consciousness around the issue of animal welfare. One hesitates to imagine what the conditions were like in Mabel Stark’s heyday, when it was widely believed that big cats could be tamed and domesticated “with kindness.”

The utter want of self-awareness at the New York Times, and its enduring reputation as a respectable and progressive media outlet, boggle the mind. In compensating for their contributions to one form of oppression, they cheerfully overlook and perpetuate another. Tune in next week for the new episode of “Overlooked,” in which the Times pays long-overdue tribute to Elizabeth Bathory: one of the most productive women in the male-dominated field of serial homicide.

In the World of American Politics, One Khashoggi Is Worth One Million Yemeni Lives

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At this point we can only assume that the Turkish version of events regarding the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi is true. As always, I’m open to being proved wrong, and it’s certainly incumbent upon Ankara to release the audio evidence of which they claim to be in possession (though this, should it come out, will naturally be dismissed by the Saudis as fabricated or doctored), but the list of plausible alternative scenarios currently stands at zero.

Khashoggi went into the Saudi consulate and was never seen again. If he had merely been kidnapped and jailed, we’d have heard from him by now. He would have appeared on Saudi state television and delivered some kind of scripted statement like Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri did last November. The House of Saud appears to prefer this time of year, autumn, for abductions and assassinations.

If Khashoggi was, in fact, whacked out by a Saudi hit squad—complete with torture and Goodfellas-style dismemberment—as the Turks maintain he was, then Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is even crazier than we thought. Since being named heir apparent by his senile father, King Salman, the crown prince has been on a mission to establish himself as the region’s chief thug. This is no small task, but MbS, as he’s blithely referred to, seems up to the challenge.

As Patrick Cockburn recently wrote, the crown prince’s list of failures, in so short a span of time, is impressive. His escalation of the war in Yemen has achieved nothing unless you count mass murder and mass famine as achievements. The Houthis are holding fast, and the country has been all but obliterated. Perhaps, though, the Saudis view Yemen’s destruction favorably. Like the US invasion of Vietnam, Saudi Arabia’s overarching goal in Yemen is to demonstrate to the region what happens when populations revolt against their oppressors. You want to upend the status quo and realize a degree of independence and self-government, you’d better be prepared to be pulverized. That’s the warning being issued by Saudi Arabia in Yemen.

No sooner had bin Salman been appointed crown prince (June 2017) than the Saudi-led diplomatic and economic war on Qatar commenced. The express purpose of the surprise gambit was to punish Doha for its support for terrorism—pretty rich coming from the epicenter of Wahhabism, that diabolic interpretation of Islam upon which al-Qaeda and its numerous clones base their murderous ideologies. Of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers, fifteen were Saudi nationals; none were Qatari.

Which is not to say that Qatar is innocent of the charge. Saudi Arabia and Qatar, along with the UAE, supported the same terrorist elements of the Syrian opposition. Hillary Clinton, in one of her $250,000 speeches to Goldman Sachs, confirmed this in 2013, asserting that Damascus and its allies were “being taken on by indigenous rebels but increasingly a collection of jihadists who are funded by the Saudis, funded by the Emiratis, funded by [Qatar] …” (Emphasis mine.) In a 2014email sent to John Podesta, Clinton wrote: “we need to use our diplomatic and more traditional intelligence assets to bring pressure on the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL and other radical Sunni groups in the region.” Knowing this, Hillary publicly argued in favor of regime change in Syria. But I’m sick to death of writing about Hillary Clinton.

To call the support-for-terrorism pretext flimsy is generous. Preposterous is the better word. I can’t imagine that even casual observers were taken in by it, Donald Trump being a possible exception (he stupidly spoke in favor of the Saudi blockade, apparently unaware that his country maintains a critical military base in Qatar). Riyadh’s motivation was obvious: Qatar was being disciplined for its pragmatic relationship with Iran, with whom it shares the biggest natural gas field in the world. Also for Al Jazeera’s—Qatar’s state-funded media outlet— unflattering coverage of Saudi policies. What the crown prince was hoping to accomplish here is anyone’s guess. Did he think Doha would surrender its own strategic interests, renounce its cooperation with Tehran and meekly submit to his capricious will? Needless to say that didn’t happen. Qatar responded by reinstating full diplomatic relations with Iran, which, along with Turkey, increased exports to Qatar, diminishing the effect of the embargo.

A few months later, right around the time the crown prince launched his Stalinist purge of the royal family, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri was detained on a visit to Saudi Arabia. Soon after, clearly reading from a text that had been prepared for him, he announced his resignation on Saudi state TV. In his statement he hit out at Hezbollah and Iran; he also claimed that an attempt on his life—presumably from Hezbollah or Iran—was imminent (Lebanese intelligence contested this). The charade was absolutely transparent. “The words [Hariri] read out,” Robert Fisk wrote at the time, “are entirely in line with the speeches of Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman and with the insane president of the United States who speaks of Iran with the same anger, as does the American defense secretary.”

Predictably, the bizarre incident had the effect of uniting the Lebanese people in support of their prime minister and, more importantly, their national sovereignty. Lebanese President Michel Aoun rejected Hariri’s “resignation” and demanded that he return to Lebanon, which he did a couple weeks later. On December 5, one month and one day after resigning, Hariri reassumed the office of prime minister. The crown prince’s stratagem had backfired in spectacular fashion. Meanwhile, Hariri, who strikes me as a bit of a wimp, refuses to speak about what exactly took place during that trip to Saudi Arabia, and is now reportedly 
taking the kingdom's side in the Khashoggi affair.

From said affair, we can take away a few things. First, I’m happy to see that the US and its allies have suddenly embraced due process, calling as they are for a thorough, independent investigation into the event so as to establish beyond a doubt what actually took place, at which point they can respond accordingly. I trust they will now apply the same evidentiary standards to, say, the next chemical weapons incident in Syria, or the next botched assassination of an ex-spy in Europe. Moreover, it’s good to know where we in the West draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior as regards official allies. Shelling hospitals and mosques and schools andschool buses and weddings and funerals is one thing—unfortunate casualties of war, worthy of a few hollow words of regret. Killing a Washington Post columnist, however, will not be brooked. Hence, the mass boycott of the upcoming business conference in Riyadh, and Trump’s talk of “severe punishment.” In the world of American politics, one Khashoggi is worth one million Yemeni lives.

Mohammed bin Salman ought to have understood this. That he didn’t tells us much about the man set to rule Saudi Arabia for the next four or five decades. Such hubris, such vanity, and he’s not even king yet! If I had his ear, I would advise the crown prince to exercise extreme caution moving forward. There’s hell to pay for stepping on Uncle Sam’s toes: once he sours on you, your days are numbered. Our old friend and ally Saddam Hussein can, or could, attest to that. I would also hand him a copy of King Lear as a cautionary tale, as the state of affairs in Saudi Arabia is a sparkling case of life imitating art.

Reprinted with permission from American Herald Tribune.