All posts by Whitney Webb

Guaido Set to Enact Uprising Rooted in US Regime-Change Operations Manual

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Juan Guaidó, the self-proclaimed “interim president of Venezuela” who is supported by the United States government, recently announced coming “tactical actions” that will be taken by his supporters starting April 6 as part of “Operation Freedom,” an alleged grassroots effort to overthrow Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.

That operation, according to Guaidó, will be led by “Freedom and Aid Committees” that in turn create “freedom cells” throughout the country — “cells” that will spring to action when Guaidó gives the signal on April 6 and launch large-scale community protests. Guaidó’s stated plan involves the Venezuelan military then taking his side, but his insistence that “all options are still on the table” (i.e., foreign military intervention) reveals his impatience with the military, which has continued to stay loyal to Maduro throughout Guaidó’s “interim presidency.”

However, a document released by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) in February, and highlighted last month in a report by Devex, details the creation of networks of small teams, or cells, that would operate in a way very similar to what Guaidó describes in his plan for “Operation Freedom.”

Given that Guaidó was trained by a group funded by USAID’s sister organization, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) — and is known to take his marching orders from Washington, including his self-proclamation as “interim president” and his return to Venezuela following the “humanitarian aid” showdown — it is worth considering that this USAID document may well serve as a roadmap to the upcoming and Guaidó-led “tactical actions” that will comprise “Operation Freedom.”

RED Teams

Titled “Rapid Expeditionary Development (RED) Teams: Demand and Feasibility Assessment,” the 75-page document was produced for the US Global Development Lab, a branch of USAID. It was written as part of an effort to the “widespread sentiment” among the many military, intelligence, and development officials the report’s authors interviewed “that the USG [US government] is woefully underperforming in non-permissive and denied environments,” including Venezuela. Notably, some of the military, intelligence and development officials interviewed by the report’s authors had experience working in a covert capacity in Venezuela.

The approach put forth in this report involves the creation of rapid expeditionary development (RED) teams, who would “be deployed as two-person teams and placed with ‘non-traditional’ USAID partners executing a mix of offensive, defensive, and stability operations in extremis conditions.” The report notes later on that these “non-traditional” partners are US Special Forces (SF) and the CIA.

The report goes on to state that “RED Team members would be catalytic actors, performing development activities alongside local communities while coordinating with interagency partners.” It further states that “[i]t is envisioned that the priority competency of proposed RED Team development officers would be social movement theory (SMT)” and that “RED Team members would be ‘super enablers,’ observing situations on the ground and responding immediately by designing, funding, and implementing small-scale activities.”

In other words, these teams of combined intelligence, military and/or “democracy promoting” personnel would work as “super enablers” of “small-scale activities” focused on “social movement theory” and community mobilizations, such as the mobilizations of protests.

The decentralized nature of RED teams and their focus on engineering “social movements” and “mobilizations” is very similar to Guaidó’s plan for “Operation Freedom.” Operation Freedom is set to begin through “Freedom and Aid committees” that cultivate decentralized “freedom cells” throughout the country and that create mass mobilizations when Guaidó gives the go ahead on April 6. The ultimate goal of Operation Freedom is to have those “freedom cell”-generated protests converge on Venezuela’s presidential palace, where Nicolás Maduro resides. Given Guaidó lack of momentum and popularity within Venezuela, it seems highly likely that US government “catalytic actors” may be a key part of his upcoming plan to topple Maduro in little over a week.

Furthermore, an appendix included in the report states that RED Team members, in addition to being trained in social movement theory and community mobilization techniques, would also be trained in “weapons handling and use,” suggesting that their role as “catalytic actors” could also involve Maidan-esque behavior. This is a distinct possibility raised by the report’s claim that RED Team members be trained in the use of both “offensive” and “defensive” weaponry.

In addition, another appendix states that RED Team members would help “identify allies and mobilize small amounts of cash to establish community buy-in/relationship” — i.e., bribes — and would particularly benefit the CIA by offering a way to “transition covert action into community engagement activities.”

Feeling Bolsonaro’s breath on its neck

Also raising the specter of a Venezuela link is the fact that the document suggests Brazil as a potential location for a RED Team pilot study. Several of those interviewed for the report asserted that “South American countries were ripe for pilots” of the RED Team program, adding that “These [countries were] under-reported, low-profile, idiot-proof locations, where USG civilian access is fairly unrestrained by DS [Diplomatic Security] and where there is a positive American relationship with the host government.”

This January, Brazil inaugurated Jair Bolsonaro as president, a fascist who has made his intention to align the country close to Washington’s interests no secret. During Bolsonaro’s recent visit to Washington, he became the first president of that country to visit CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. President Donald Trump said during his meeting with Bolsonaro that “We have a great alliance with Brazil — better than we’ve ever had before” and spoke in favor of Brazil joining NATO.

Though Bolsonaro’s government has claimed late in February that it would not allow the US to launch a military intervention from its territory, Bolsonaro’s son, Eduardo Bolsonaro — an adviser to his father and a Brazilian congressman — said last week that “use of force will be necessary” in Venezuela “at some point” and, echoing the Trump administration, added that “all options are on the table.” If Bolsonaro’s government does allow the “use of force,” but not a full-blown foreign military intervention per se, its closeness to the Trump administration and the CIA suggests that covert actions, such as those carried out by the proposed RED Teams, are a distinct possibility.

Frontier Design Group

The RED Team report was authored by members of Frontier Design Group (FDG) for USAID’s Global Development Lab. FDG is a national security contractor and its mission statement on its website is quite revealing:
Since our founding, Frontier has focused on the challenges and opportunities that concern the “3Ds” of Defense, Development and Diplomacy and critical intersections with the intelligence community. Our work has focused on the wicked and sometimes overlapping problem sets of fragility, violent extremism, terrorism, civil war, and insurgency. Our work on these complex issues has included projects with the US Departments of State and Defense, USAID, the National Counterterrorism Center and the US Institute of Peace.”
FDG also states on is website that it also regularly does work for the Council on Foreign Relations and the Omidyar Group — which is controlled by Pierre Omidyar, a billionaire with deep ties to the US national security establishment that were the subject of a recent MintPress series. According to journalist Tim Shorrock, who mentions the document in a recent investigation focusing on Pierre Omidyar for Washington Babylon, FDG was the “sole contractor” hired by USAID to create a “new counterinsurgency doctrine for the Trump administration” and the fruit of that effort is the “RED Team” document described above.

One of the co-authors of the document is Alexa Courtney, FDG founder and former USAID liaison officer with the Department of Defense; former manager of civilian counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan for USAID; and former counterinsurgency specialist for US intelligence contractor Booz Allen Hamilton.

In addition, according to Shorrock, Courtney’s name has also been found “on several Caerus [Associates] contracts with USAID and US intelligence that were leaked to me on a thumb drive, including a $77 million USAID project to track ‘licit and illicit networks’ in Honduras.” Courtney, according to her LinkedIn account, was also recently honored by Chevron Corporation for her “demonstrated leadership and impact on development results.” MintPress recently reported on the role of Chevron in the current US-led effort to topple Maduro and replace him with Guaidó.

Send in the USAID

Though Devex was told last month that USAID was “still working on the details in formulating the Rapid Expeditionary Development (RED) Teams initiative,” Courtney stated that the report’s contents had been “received really favorably” by “very senior” and “influential” former and current government officials she had interviewed during the creation of the document.

For instance, one respondent asserted that the RED Team system would “restore the long-lost doing capacity of USAID.” Another USAID official with 15 years of experience, including in “extremely denied environments,” stated that:
We have to be involved in national security or USAID will not be relevant. Anybody who doesn’t think we need to be working in combat elements or working with SF [special forces] groups is just naïve. We are either going to be up front or irrelevant … USAID is going through a lot right now, but this is an area where we can be of utility. It must happen.”
Given that the document represents the efforts of the sole contractor tasked with developing the current administration’s new counterterrorism strategy, there is plenty of reason to believe that its contents — published for over a year — have been or are set to be put to use in Venezuela, potentially as part of the upcoming “Operation Freedom,” set to begin on April 6.

This is supported by the troubling correlation between a document produced by the NED-funded group CANVAS and the recent power outages that have taken place throughout Venezuela, which were described as US-led “sabotage” by the country’s government. A recent report by The Grayzone detailed how a September 2010 memo by CANVAS — which trained Juan Guaidó — described in detail how the potential collapse of the country’s electrical infrastructure, like that recently seen in Venezuela, would be “a watershed event” that “would likely have the impact of galvanizing public unrest in a way that no opposition group could ever hope to generate.”

The document specifically named the Simon Bolivar Hydroelectric Plant at Guri Dam, which failed earlier this month as a result of what the Venezuelan government asserted was “sabotage” conducted by the US government. That claim was bolstered by US Senator Marco Rubio’s apparent foreknowledge of the power outage. Thus, there is a precedent of correlation between these types of documents and actions that occur in relation to the current US regime-change effort in Venezuela.

Furthermore, it would make sense for the Trump administration to attempt to enact such an initiative as that described in the document, given its apparent inability to launch a military intervention in Venezuela, despite its frequent claims that “all options are on the table.” Indeed, US allies — including those close to Venezuela, like Colombia — have rejected military intervention, given the US’ past role in bloody coups and civil wars throughout the region.

Thus, with its hands tied when it comes to military intervention, only covert actions — such as those described in the RED Team document — are likely to be enacted by the US government, at least at this stage of its ongoing “regime change” effort in Venezuela.

Reprinted with permission from MintPressNews.

US Taxpayers On the Hook for Nearly $1 Billion in Saudi Arabia’s Recent Missile Defense Purchase

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On Monday, in an all-but-unreported news item, the Pentagon announced that it would be paying $946 million to Lockheed Martin toward the installation of a missile defense system that was purchased — not by the United States government — but by Saudi Arabia. In other words, the Pentagon is paying nearly $1 billion to subsidize a purchase made by a foreign power.

In its announcement, the Pentagon referred to the payment as an “undefinitized contract action” that would be used, in part, to prepare Saudi Arabia’s current missile defense system for the installation of the $15 billion Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system manufactured by Lockheed.

The Pentagon said the payment was intended to prevent major delays in the delivery and production of the THAAD system, suggesting it was likely a hedge against past Saudi interest in the THAAD’s main (and cheaper) competitor, the Russian-made S-400. However, the payment is also authorized for use by Lockheed to pay for materials, tools and engineering development.

The Saudi THAAD purchase was a major component of the “$110 billion” weapons deal much touted by the Trump administration in 2017. However, many of the key purchases within that massive deal were never finalized, an embarrassment for what the administration had advertised as a major foreign policy success that would create jobs in the United States, even though many Lockheed products are actually manufactured abroad.

A better deal for a better product down the block

One likely explanation for the Pentagon’s willingness to pay such a significant amount to subsidize the Saudi THAAD system is the fact that the Saudi government had intended to purchase the cheaper and more effective Russian-made S-400 instead of the THAAD. Indeed, as MintPress News reported last year, the Saudis let the deadline for the THAAD deal pass on September 30 of last year without signing, and instead expressed interest in the S-400. The Saudis also refused US government requests to disavow its interest in the Russian-made system.

Just two days after the THAAD deadline passed, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi disappeared. His disappearance and alleged murder caused international outrage, surprising many observers, as even the most outrage-prone US politicians generally turn a blind eye to Saudi human-rights violations. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who became one of the most vocal critics of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) after Khashoggi’s disappearance, is also heavily funded by Lockheed Martin, which is the largest contributor to his 2020 re-election campaign.

The furor over Khashoggi’s death — which appears to have been, in part, influenced by Saudi lack of interest in the THAAD system — eventually pressured the Saudi government enough to sign letters of offer and acceptance for their purchase of 44 THAAD launchers, missiles and related equipment in November.

However, in order to entice the Saudis to “buy American,” more than political pressure appears to have been needed and it is likely that US officials offered to “sweeten the deal.” Given this context, the Pentagon’s $946 million payout to prevent installation delays appears to be one of these concessions, as the US government continues to scrambleto keep its allies from buying the THAAD’s top competitor, the Russian S-400. Unfortunately for them, it’s the US taxpayers who are footing the bill.

Reprinted with permission from MintPressNews.

Pence, Guaidó Fail to Secure Lima Group Approval for US Military Intervention in Venezuela

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CARACAS, VENEZUELA – On Sunday, the US-backed and self-declared “interim president” of Venezuela, Juan Guaidó, announced that he would meet with the Lima Group on Monday to “formally propose” keeping “all options open” for the “liberation” of Venezuela. The Lima Group, composed of the US and its allies and client states in the Americas, have all recognized Guaidó as the “legitimate” leader of Venezuela.

The likelihood that Guaidó would use this meeting to request US-backed military intervention in Venezuela, a long-time aspiration of the Trump administration, increased substantially after the vice president of the Venezuelan government led by Nicolás Maduro, Delcy Rodríguez, announced that the government had credible information that Monday’s Lima Group meeting would approve “an international coalition” to invade Venezuela in order to topple Maduro and his Chavista government. The Lima Group meeting is also likely to result in the imposition of new sanctions targeting Venezuela, according to recent statements made by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Some members of the Lima Group, however, have already announced that they are unwilling to endorse a military response to the Venezuelan crisis. On Monday, Peru’s Vice Foreign Minister Hugo de Zela Martínez stated at the beginning of the Lima Group conference that “the use of force, in any of its forms, is unacceptable” and that “the use of force is not a solution for what’s happening in Venezuela.”

Martínez further asserted that Peru and other members of the bloc were still pushing for a negotiated solution to the crisis and would consider only further diplomatic or economic actions to increase pressure on the Maduro-led government. Ultimately, the resolution of the crisis – according to Martínez – will come only if Maduro steps down and “free, fair and just elections” follow. The European Union also echoed Martínez’s comments on Monday, stating that military intervention in Venezuela “must be avoided.”

Such resistance from the Lima Group may have been unexpected from the United States, given the bloc’s willingness to endorse Guaidó after he swore himself in last month in a move that shocked and alienated many of his political allies within the Venezuelan opposition. Given recent statements from Guaidó and top US officials– as well as the recent death threat against Maduro voiced by US Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) via Twitter – it seems that if the US is determined to use military means to topple Maduro, it will likely have to do so unilaterally or clandestinely.

Following the Monday meeting between Guaidó and US Vice President Mike Pence, military intervention was allegedly not discussed by the pair and Pence affirmed the US’ commitment to Guaidó’s parallel government and his push for “freedom” in Venezuela.

The US regime-change roadmap

Recent statements made by the Russian government suggest that the US is planning to go the latter route. On Friday, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova stated that the ministry had obtained evidence that “US companies and their NATO allies are working on the issue of acquiring a large batch of weapons and ammunition in an Eastern European country for their subsequent transfer to Venezuelan opposition forces.” Zakharova also stated that the large planned weapons cache would include “heavy machine guns, grenade launchers, portable missile launchers and ammunition for light weapons and artillery systems.”

This revelation seems to support concerns that US was seeking to follow the roadmaps of past regime-change “proxy” wars in Ukraine in Syria in order to topple Maduro’s government. As MintPress News previously noted, many of the same elements seen in the lead-up to Ukraine and Syria are also present in Venezuela — including the manufacture of a “humanitarian” justification for regime change; efforts to funnel arms and weapons into the country via its foreign borders; mass funding of the political opposition; and covert involvement of US government agencies, particularly the CIA.

Reprinted with permission from MintPressNews.

Bolton’s Radical Reshaping Plan for Mideast Included ‘Mind Boggling’ Strikes on Iran, Syria, and Iraq

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In 2017, less than a year before he became national security advisor, John Bolton promised a gathering of the Mujahedeen Khalq (MEK) that:
The declared policy of the United States should be the overthrow of the mullahs’ regime in Tehran. … The behavior and the objectives of the regime are not going to change and, therefore, the only solution is to change the regime itself. … And that’s why, before 2019, we here will celebrate in Tehran!
While some may have thought Bolton’s statements of regime change in Iran before 2019 were just more bellicose rhetoric from a well-known Iran hawk, a report published Sunday in the Wall Street Journal has revealed that Bolton did everything within his power to push for President Donald Trump to launch a military attack on Iran.

According to the Journal, Trump’s national security team – which is led by Bolton – requested that the Pentagon develop “far-reaching military options to strike Iran” last September after Shia militias in Iraq fired three mortars at the US embassy and diplomatic compound in Baghdad. As the report noted, the shells “landed in an open lot and harmed no one,” but the group that fired them is alleged to have ties with Iran.

This incident, though minor, notably took place amid considerable unrest in the Iraqi city of Basra and during competing efforts by the US and Iran to influence the formation of Iraq’s next national government.

Nevertheless, the minor nature of the incident was apparently the perfect pretext for Bolton and others on the national security team – which Bolton has been stocking with war hawks for much of the past year – to push for a military strike on Iran, something Bolton himself has long sought, as evidenced by his numerous speeches and editorials calling for preemptive bombing of the Islamic Republic.

For instance, in one meeting, Mira Ricardel – then serving as Bolton’s ultra-hawkish deputy national security advisor – described the attacks in Iraq as “an act of war” and said the US had to respond decisively. Ricardel is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former executive of US weapons-maker Boeing but left her post last November as result of friction with First Lady Melania Trump.

In addition, during those meetings, the Journal noted that Bolton did not even attempt to hide his real motivations, as he “made it clear that he personally supports regime change in Iran, a position he aggressively championed before joining the Trump administration, according to people familiar with the discussions.”

As a result of those meetings, the Bolton-led National Security Council pushed for an attack plan on Iran so brazen that it deeply concerned Pentagon and State Department officials. One former senior US administration official told the Journal that the request “definitely rattled people” and added that “people were shocked. It was mind-boggling how cavalier they were about hitting Iran.”

In other words, using a remarkably minor incident as a pretext, the Bolton-led group of hawks that compose the majority of Trump’s National Security Council (NSC) was preparing to launch a full-scale regime-change war on Iran. To make matter worse, the Journal also reported that the Pentagon had “complied with the NSC’s request to develop options for striking Iran,” meaning that Bolton and his team now have a range of Pentagon-developed strategies for bombing Iran at their fingertips.

Bolton’s obsession and unkept promise

Bolton ‘s push to bomb Iran last September over such a minor incident may seem strange, but Bolton’s history makes it clear that he has long sought any excuse – from the minor to the non-existent – to justify waging war against Iran’s current government.

As MintPress reported last year, Bolton’s past indicates a near obsession with clearing the way for US military action against Iran. As journalist Gareth Porter has noted, while Bolton was the Bush administration’s key policymaker on Iran, he — by flouting State Department protocol and taking several unannounced trips to Israel — “actively conspired … to establish the political conditions necessary for the administration to carry out military action” against Iran.

Not only that, but Bolton’s behind-the-scenes dealings — using fabricated evidence, provided to him by an Iranian terrorist group that Bolton still openly supports, to convince the United Nations that Iran was secretly developing a nuclear weapon — led Iran’s nuclear program to become a matter overseen by the United Nations Security Council, as opposed to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Since becoming national security advisor, Bolton has continued to make this claim — as recently as last week — despite its having been rejected by the US intelligence community repeatedly since 2007.

The terror group relied on by Bolton, Mujahedeen Khalq (MEK), was listed as a “Foreign Terrorist Organization” by the United States government from 1997 and 2012 and, in the past, has conducted terror acts to accomplish its goals, killing Iranians as well as Americans in the process. More recently, MEK has worked with Israeli Intelligence to murder Iranian scientists. Since its removal from the government’s terror group list after an extensive lobbying effort that targeted prominent US politicians, MEK has sought to reinvent itself as a “moderate” Iranian opposition group even though it has next to no support within Iran and has consistently been characterized as both “cultish” and “authoritarian.”

It was to this very group that Bolton had promised regime change in Tehran in 2019, a promise he ultimately failed to keep, but not for lack of trying.

“Sunni-stan,” partition, and a Middle East rebuilt to suit

Another highly significant revelation of the Journal’s report, which has been largely overlooked, is that the plans for “military options” that Bolton and his team requested from the Pentagon also included strategies for launching strikes, not just in Iran, but in Syria and Iraq. As the report noted, “the National Security Council asked the Pentagon to provide the White House with options to respond with strikes in Iraq and Syria as well, according to people familiar with the talks.”

Bolton’s willingness to bring Syria and Iraq into the fray betrays the fact that he is not just seeking regime change in individual countries but seeking to remake the Middle East as a whole. Indeed, both Syria and Iraq have long been in Bolton’s crosshairs, as evidenced by his 2015 editorial in the New York Times where he calls for the partition of both countries in order to benefit the United States, Israel and “friendly Arab” states like Saudi Arabia.

Bolton’s partition plan involves the creation of a Sunni state out of northeastern Syria and western Iraq, which he nicknames “Sunni-stan.” He asserts that such a country has “economic potential” as an oil producer, would be a “bulwark” against the Syrian government and “Iran-allied Baghdad,” and would help defeat Daesh (ISIS).

Bolton’s mention of oil is notable, as the proposed area for this Sunni state sits on key oil fields that US oil interests, such as ExxonMobil and the Koch brothers, have sought to control if the partition of Iraq and Syria comes to pass. Also notable is the fact that the area of Syria Bolton mentions is the area currently being illegally occupied by the United States. This could well be a driving factor in Bolton’s desire to delay or prevent the US troop withdrawal in northeastern Syria.

However, the most notable part of Bolton’s editorial calling for the creation of “Sunni-stan” is that he mentions exactly who would benefit from this partition, and it certainly isn’t the Syrians or the Iraqis. “Restoring Iraqi and Syrian governments to their former borders,” Bolton writes, “is a goal fundamentally contrary to American, Israeli and friendly Arab state interests.” In other words, allowing the Syrian government to return to its former borders is “contrary” to the interests of the nations that Bolton supports and that he seeks to make the dominant powers in the Middle East through his aggressive policy for the region.

With Bolton and his team on the National Security Council armed with the tools to bomb both Syria and Iran, it’s only a matter of time before Bolton finds the perfect pretext to begin enacting his vision for a “new” Middle East, most likely starting with Iran.

Reprinted with permission from MintPressNews.

How a NeoCon-Backed “Fact Checker” Plans to Wage War on Independent Media

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Soon after the social media “purge” of independent media sites and pages this past October, a top neoconservative insider — Jamie Fly — was caught stating that the mass deletion of anti-establishment and anti-war pages on Facebook and Twitter was “just the beginning” of a concerted effort by the US government and powerful corporations to silence online dissent within the United States and beyond.

While a few, relatively uneventful months in the online news sphere have come and gone since Fly made this ominous warning, it appears that the neoconservatives and other standard bearers of the military-industrial complex and the US oligarchy are now poised to let loose their latest digital offensive against independent media outlets that seek to expose wrongdoing in both the private and public sectors.

As MintPress News Editor-in-Chief Mnar Muhawesh recently wrote, MintPress was informed that it was under review by an organization called Newsguard Technologies, which described itself to MintPress as simply a “news rating agency” and asked Muhawesh to comment on a series of allegations, several of which were blatantly untrue. However, further examination of this organization reveals that it is funded by and deeply connected to the US government, neo-conservatives, and powerful monied interests, all of whom have been working overtime since the 2016 election to silence dissent to American forever-wars and corporate-led oligarchy.

More troubling still, Newsguard — by virtue of its deep connections to government and Silicon Valley — is lobbying to have its rankings of news sites installed by default on computers in US public libraries, schools, and universities as well as on all smartphones and computers sold in the United States.

In other words, as Newsguard’s project advances, it will soon become almost impossible to avoid this neocon-approved news site’s ranking systems on any technological device sold in the United States. Worse still, if its efforts to quash dissenting voices in the US are successful, Newsguard promises that its next move will be to take its system global.

Red light, green light . . .

Newsguard has received considerable attention in the mainstream media of late, having been the subject of a slew of articles in the Washington Post, the Hill, the Boston Globe, Politico, Bloomberg, Wired, and many others just over the past few months. Those articles portray Newsguard as using “old-school journalism” to fight “fake news” through its reliance on nine criteria allegedly intended to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to online news.

Newsguard separates sites it deems worthy and sites it considers unreliable by using a color-coded rating — green, yellow, or red — and more detailed “nutrition labels” regarding a site’s credibility or lack thereof. Rankings are created by Newsguard’s team of “trained analysts.” The color-coding system may remind some readers of the color-coded terror threat-level warning system that was created after 9/11, making it worth noting that Tom Ridge, the former secretary of Homeland Security who oversaw the implementation of that system under George W. Bush, is on Newsguard’s advisory board.

As Newsguard releases a new rating of a site, that rating automatically spreads to all computers that have installed its news ranking browser plug-in. That plug-in is currently available for free for the most commonly used internet browsers. NewsGuard directly markets the browser plug-in to libraries, schools and internet users in general.

According to its website, Newsguard has rated more than 2,000 news and information sites. However, it plans to take its ranking efforts much farther by eventually reviewing “the 7,500 most-read news and information websites in the US—about 98 percent of news and information people read and share online” in the United States in English.

recent Gallup study, which was supported and funded by Newsguard as well as the Knight Foundation (itself a major investor in Newsguard), stated that a green rating increased users likelihood to share and read content while a red rating decreased that likelihood. Specifically, it found 63 percent would be less likely to share news stories from red-rated websites, and 56 percent would be more likely to share news from green-rated websites, though the fact that Newsguard and one of its top investors funded the poll makes it necessary to take these findings with a grain of salt.

However, some of the rankings Newsguard itself has publicized show that it is manifestly uninterested in fighting “misinformation.” How else to explain the fact that the Washington Post and CNN both received high scores even though both have written stories or made statements that later proved to be entirely false? For example, CNN falsely claimed in 2016 that it was illegal for Americans to read WikiLeaks releases and unethically colluded with the DNC to craft presidential debate questions to favor Hillary Clinton’s campaign that same year.

In addition, in 2017, CNN published a fake story that a Russian bank linked to a close ally of President Donald Trump was under Senate investigation. That same year, CNN was forced to retract a report that the Trump campaign had been tipped off early about WikiLeaks documents damaging to Hillary Clinton when it later learned the alert was about material already publicly available.

The Washington Post, whose $600 million conflict of interest with the CIA goes unnoted by Newsguard, has also published false stories since the 2016 election, including one article that falsely claimed that “Russian hackers” had tapped into Vermont’s electrical grid. It was later found that the grid itself was never breached and the “hack” was only an isolated laptop with a minor malware problem. Yet, such acts of journalistic malpractice are apparently of little concern to Newsguard when those committing such acts are big-name corporate media outlets.
Furthermore, Newsguard gives a high rating to Voice of America, the US state-funded media outlet, even though its former acting associate director said that the outlet produces “fluff journalism” and despite the fact that it was recently reformed to “provide news that supports our [US] national security objectives.” However, RT receives a low “red” rating for being funded by the Russian government and for “raising doubts about other countries and their institutions” (i.e., including reporting critical of the institutions and governments of the US and its allies).

Keeping the conversation safe for the corporatocracy

Newsguard describes itself as an organization dedicated to “restoring trust and accountability” and using “journalism to fight false news, misinformation and disinformation.” While it repeatedly claims on its website that its employees “have no political axes to grind” and “care deeply about reliable journalism’s pivotal role in democracy,” a quick look at its co-founders, top funders and advisory board make it clear that Newsguard is aimed at curbing voices that hold the powerful — in both government and the private sector — to account.

Newsguard is the latest venture to result from the partnership between Steven Brill and Louis Gordon Crovitz, who currently serve as co-CEOs of the group. Brill is a long-time journalist — published in TIME and The New Yorker, among others — who most recently founded the Yale Journalism Initiative, which aims to encourage Yale students who “aspire to contribute to democracy in the United States and around the world” to become journalists at top US and international media organizations. He first teamed up with Crovitz in 2009 to create Journalism Online, which sought to make the online presence of top American newspapers and other publishers profitable, and was also the CEO of the company that partnered up with the TSA to offer “registered” travelers the ability to move more quickly through airport security — for a price, of course.

While Brill’s past does not in itself raise red flags, Crovitz — his partner in founding Journalism Online, then Press+, and now Newsguard — is the last person one would expect to find promoting any legitimate effort to “restore trust and accountability” in journalism. In the early 1980s, Crovitz held a number of positions at Dow Jones and at the Wall Street Journal, eventually becoming executive vice president of the former and the publisher of the latter before both were sold to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp in 2007. He is also a board member of Business Insider, which has received over $30 million from Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos in recent years.

In addition to being a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, Crovitz proudly notes in his bio, available on Newsguard’s website, that he has been an “editor or contributor to books published by the American Enterprise Institute and Heritage Foundation.” Though many MintPress readers are likely familiar with these two institutions, for those who are not, it is worth pointing out that the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) is one of the most influential neoconservative think tanks in the country and its “scholars,” directors and fellows have included neoconservative figures like Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, John Bolton and Frederick Kagan.

During the George W. Bush administration, AEI was instrumental in promoting the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq and has since advocated for militaristic solutions to US foreign policy objectives and the expansion of the US’ military empire as well as the “War on Terror.” During the Bush years, AEI was also closely associated with the now defunct and controversial neoconservative organization known as the Project for a New American Century (PNAC), which presciently called, four years before 9/11, for a “new Pearl Harbor” as needed to rally support behind American military adventurism.

The Heritage Foundation, like AEI, was also supportive of the war in Iraq and has pushed for the expansion of the War on Terror and US missile defense and military empire. Its corporate donors over the years have included Procter & Gamble, Chase Manhattan Bank, Dow Chemical, and Exxon Mobil, among others.

Crovitz’s associations with AEI and the Heritage Foundation, as well as his ties to Wall Street and the upper echelons of corporate media, are enough to make any thinking person question his commitment to being a fair watchdog of “legitimate journalism.” Yet, beyond his innumerable connections to neoconservatives and powerful monied interest, Crovitz has repeatedly been accused of inserting misinformation into his Wall Street Journal columns, with groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation accusing him of “repeatedly getting his facts wrong” on NSA surveillance and other issues. Some of the blatant falsehoods that have appeared in Crovitz’s work have never been corrected, even when his own sources called him out for misinformation.

For example, in a WSJ opinion piece that was written by Crovitz in 2012, Crovitz was accused of making “fantastically false claims” about the history of the internet by the very people he had cited to support those claims.

As TechDirt wrote at the time:
Almost everyone he [Crovitz] sourced or credited to support his argument that the internet was invented entirely privately at Xerox PARC and when Vint Cerf helped create TCP/IP, has spoken out to say he’s wrong. And that list includes both Vint Cerf, himself, and Xerox. Other sources, including Robert Taylor (who was there when the internet was invented) and Michael Hiltzik, have rejected Crovitz’s spinning of their own stories.
The oligarch team’s deep bench

While Brill and Crovitz’s connections alone should be enough cause for alarm, a cursory examination of Newsguard’s advisory board makes it clear that Newsguard was created to serve the interests of American oligarchy. Chief among Newsguard’s advisors are Tom Ridge, the first Secretary of Homeland Security under George W. Bush and Ret. General Michael Hayden, a former CIA director, a former NSA director and principal at the Chertoff Group, a security consultancy seeking to “advise corporate clients and governments, including foreign governments” on security matters that was co-founded by former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who also currently serves as the board chairman of major weapons manufacturer BAE systems.

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Another Newsguard advisor of note is Richard Stengel, former editor of Time magazine, a “distinguished fellow” at the Atlantic Council and Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy under President Barack Obama. At a panel discussion hosted last May by the Council on Foreign Relations, Stengel described his past position at the State Department as “chief propagandist” and also stated that he is “not against propaganda. Every country does it and they have to do it to their own population and I don’t necessarily think it’s that awful.”

Other Newsguard advisors include Don Baer, former White House communications director and advisor to Bill Clinton and current chairman of both PBS and the influential PR firm Burson Cohn & Wolfe as well as Elise Jordan, former communications director for the National Security Council and former speech-writer for Condoleezza Rice, as well as the widow of slain journalist Michael Hastings — who was writing an exposé on former CIA director John Brennan at the time of his suspicious death.

A look at Newguard’s investors further illustrates the multifarious connections between this organization and the American political and corporate elite. While Brill and Crovitz themselves are the company’s top investors, one of Newsguard’s most important investors is the Publicis Groupe. Publicis is the third largest global communications company in the world, with more than 80,000 employees in over 100 countries and an annual revenue of over €9.6 billion ($10.98 billion) in 2017. It is no stranger to controversy, as one of its subsidiaries, Qorvis, recently came under fire for exploiting US veterans at the behest of the Saudi government and also helped the Saudi government to “whitewash” its human rights record and its genocidal war in Yemen after receiving $6 million from the Gulf Kingdom in 2017.

Furthermore, given its size and influence, it is unsurprising that the Publicis Groupe counts many powerful corporations and governments among its clientele. Some of its top clients in 2018 included pharmaceutical giants Eli Lilly, Merck, Pfizer and Bayer/Monsanto as well as Starbucks, Procter & Gamble, McDonalds, Kraft Heinz, Burger King, and the governments of Australia and Saudi Arabia. Given its influential role in funding Newsguard, it is reasonable to point out the potential conflict of interest posed by the fact that sites that accurately report on Publicis’ powerful clients — but generate bad publicity — could be targeted for such reports in Newsguard’s ranking.

In addition to the Publicis Groupe, another major investor in Newsguard is the Blue Haven Initiative, which is the venture capital “impact investment” fund of the wealthy Pritzker family — one of the top 10 wealthiest families in the US, best known as the owners of the Hyatt Hotel chain and for being the second largest financial contributors to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.

Other top investors include John McCarter, a long-time executive at US government contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, as well as Thomas Glocer, former CEO of Reuters and a member of the boards of pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co., financial behemoth Morgan Stanley, and the Council on Foreign Relations, as well as a member of the Atlantic Council’s International Advisory Board.

Through these investors, Newsguard managed to raise $6 million to begin its ranking efforts in March of 2018. Newsguard’s actual revenues and financing, however, have not been disclosed despite the fact that it requires the sites it ranks to disclose their funding. In a display of pure hypocrisy, Newsguard’s United States Securities and Exchange Commission Form D — which was filed March 5, 2018 — states that the company “declined to disclose” the size of its total revenue.
 
Why give folks a choice?

While even a quick glance at its advisory board alone would be enough for many Americans to decline to install Newsguard’s browser extension on their devices, the danger of Newsguard is the fact that it is diligently working to make the adoption of its app involuntary. Indeed, if voluntary adoption of Newsguard’s app were the case, there would likely be little cause for concern, given that its website attracts barely more than 300 visits per month and its social-media following is relatively small, with just over 2,000 Twitter followers and barely 500 Facebook likes at the time of this article’s publication.

To illustrate its slip-it-under-the-radar strategy, Newsguard has gone directly to state governments to push its browser extension onto entire state public library systems, even though its website suggests that individual public libraries are welcome to install the extension if they so choose. The first state to install Newsguard on all of its public library computers across its 51 branches was the state of Hawaii — which was the first to partner with Newsguard’s “news literacy initiative,” just last month.
According to local media, Newsguard “now works with library systems representing public libraries across the country, and is also partnering with middle schools, high schools, universities, and educational organizations to support their news literacy efforts,” suggesting that these Newsguard services targeting libraries and schools are soon to become a compulsory component of the American library and education system, despite Newsguard’s glaring conflicts of interest with massive multinational corporations and powerful government power-brokers.

Notably, Newsguard has a powerful partner that has allowed it to start finding its way into public library and school computers throughout the country. As part of its new “Defending Democracy” initiative, Microsoft announced last August that it would be partnering with Newsguard to actively market the company’s ranking app and other services to libraries and schools throughout the country. Microsoft’s press release regarding the partnership states that Newsguard “will empower voters by providing them with high-quality information about the integrity and transparency of online news sites.”

Since then, Microsoft has now added the Newsguard app as a built-in feature of Microsoft Edge, its browser for iOS and Android mobile devices, and is unlikely to stop there. Indeed, as a recent report in favor of Microsoft’s partnership with Newsguard noted, “we could hope that this new partnership will allow Microsoft to add NewsGuard to Edge on Windows 10 [operating system for computers] as well.”

Newsguard, for its part, seems confident that its app will soon be added by default to all mobile devices. On its website, the organization notes that “NewsGuard will be available on mobile devices when the digital platforms such as social media sites and search engines or mobile operating systems add our ratings and Nutrition Labels directly.” This shows that Newsguard isn’t expecting its rating systems to be offered as a downloadable application for mobile devices but something that social media sites like Facebook, search engines like Google, and mobile device operating systems that are dominated by Apple and Google will “directly” integrate into nearly every smartphone and tablet sold in the United States.

A Boston Globe article on Newsguard from this past October makes this plan even more clear. The Globe wrote at the time:
Microsoft has already agreed to make NewsGuard a built-in feature in future products, and [Newsguard co-CEO] Brill said he’s in talks with other online titans. The goal is to have NewsGuard running by default on our computers and phones whenever we scan the Web for news.
This eventuality is made all the more likely given the fact that, in addition to Microsoft, Newsguard is also closely connected to Google, as Google has been a partner of the Publicis Groupe since 2014, when the two massive companies joined Condé Nast to create a new marketing service called La Maison that is “focused on producing engaging content for marketers in the luxury space.” Given Google’s power in the digital sphere as the dominant search engine, the creator of the Android mobile operating system, and the owner of YouTube, its partnership with Publicis means that Newsguard’s rating system will soon see itself being promoted by yet another of Silicon Valley’s most powerful companies.

Furthermore, there is an effort underway to integrate Newsguard into social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Indeed, as Newsguard was launched, co-CEO Brill stated that he planned to sell the company’s ratings of news sites to Facebook and Twitter. Last March, Brill told CNN that “We’re asking them [Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft and Google] to pay a fraction of what they pay their P.R. people and their lobbyists to talk about the problem.”

On Wednesday, Gallup released a poll that will likely be used as a major selling point to social media giants. The poll — funded by Newsguard and the Knight Foundation, which is a top investor in Newsguard and has recently funded a series of Gallup polls relating to online news — seems to have been created with the intention of manufacturing consent for the integration of Newsguard with top social media sites.

This is because the promoted findings from the study are as follows:“89% of users of social media sites and 83% overall want social media sites and search engines to integrate NewsGuard ratings and reviews into their news feeds and search results” and “69% would trust social media and search companies more if they took the simple step of including NewsGuard in their products.” However, a disclaimer at the end of the poll states that the results, which were based on the responses of 706 people each of whom received $2 to participate, “may not be reflective of attitudes of the broader U.S adult population.”

With trust at Facebook nose-diving and Facebook’s censorship of independent media already well underway, the findings of this poll could well be used to justify its integration into Facebook’s platform. The connections of both Newsguard and Facebook to the Atlantic Council make this seem a given.
 
Financial censorship

Another Newsguard service shows that this organization is also seeking to harm independent media financially by targeting online revenue. Through a service called “Brandguard,” which it describes as a “brand safety tool aimed at helping advertisers keep their brands off of unreliable news and information sites while giving them the assurance they need to support thousands of Green-rated [i.e., Newsguard-approved] news and information sites, big and small.”

At the time the service was announced last November, Newsguard co-CEO Brill stated that the company was “in discussions with the ad tech firms, leading agencies, and major advertisers” eager to adopt a blacklist of news sites deemed “unreliable” by Newsguard. This is unsurprising given the leading role of the Publicis Groupe, one of the world’s largest advertising and PR firms, has in funding Newsguard. As a consequence, it seems likely that many, if not all, of Publicis’ client companies will choose to adopt this blacklist to help crush many of the news sites that are unafraid to hold them accountable.

It is also important to note here that Google’s connection to Publicis and thus Newsguard could spell trouble for independent news pages that rely on Google Adsense for some or all of their ad-based revenue. Google Adsense has long been targeting sites like MintPress by demonetizing articles for information or photographs it deemed controversial, including demonetizing one article for including a photo showing US soldiers involved in torturing Iraqi detainees at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison.

Since then, Google — a US military contractor — has repeatedly tried to shutter ad access to MintPress articles that involve reporting that is critical of US empire and military expansion. One article that has been repeatedly flagged by Google details how many African-Americans have questioned whether the Women’s March has aided or harmed the advancement of African-Americans in the United States. Google has repeatedly claimed that the article, which was written by African-American author and former Washington Post bureau chief Jon Jeter, contains “dangerous content.”

Given Google’s already established practice of targeting factual reporting it deemed controversial through Adsense, Brandguard will likely offer the tech giant just the excuse it needs to cut off sites like MintPress, and other pages equally critical of empire, altogether.

An action plan for the genuine protection of journalism

Though it is just getting started, Newsguard’s plan to insert its app into every device and major social-media network is a threat to any news site that regularly publishes information that rubs any of Newsguard’s investors, partners or advisors the wrong way. Given its plan to rank the English-language US news sites that account for 98 percent of US digital news consumption, Newsguard’s agenda is of the utmost concern to every independent media page active in the United States and beyond — given Newsguard’s promise to take its project global.

By linking up with former CIA and NSA directors, Silicon Valley Giants, and massive PR firms working for some of the most controversial governments and corporations in the world, Newsguard has betrayed the fact that it is not actually seeking to “restore trust and accountability” in journalism, but to “restore trust and accountability” in news outlets that protect the existing power structure and help shield the corporate-led oligarchy and military-industrial complex from criticism.

Not only is it trying to tank the reputations of independent media through its biased ranking system, Newsguard is also seeking to attack these alternative voices financially and by slipping its ranking system by default onto all computers and phones sold in the US

However, Newsguard and it agenda of guarding the establishment from criticism can be stopped. By supporting independent media and unplugging from social media sites committed to censorship, like Facebook and Twitter, we can strengthen the independent media community and keep it afloat despite the unprecedented nature of these attacks on free speech and watchdog journalism.

Beyond that, a key way to keep Newsguard and those behind it on their toes is to hold them to account by pointing out their clear conflicts of interest and hypocrisy and by derailing the narrative they are carefully crafting that Newsguard is “non-partisan,” “trustworthy,” and true guardians against the scourge of “fake news.”

While this report has sought to be a starting point for such work, anyone concerned about Newsguard and its connections to the war machine and corrupt corporations should feel encouraged to point out the organization’s own conflicts of interests and shady connections via its Twitter and Facebook pages and the feedback section on Newsguard’s website. The best way to defeat this new tool of the neocons is to put them on notice and to continue to expose Newsguard as a guardian of empire, not a guardian of journalism.

Reprinted with permission from MintPressNews.

Loophole in Bernie Sanders’ Yemen Bill Actually Allows Continued US Involvement in Yemen

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Last week, many celebrated the advancement of Senate Joint Resolution (SJR) 54, which had been introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), as a sign that the US Congress was finally willing to act to reduce the US’ culpability for the situation in Yemen, currently the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

The bill, which will be voted on by the Senate this week, has been praised by many within the anti-war movement for its bid to “end” US military involvement in Yemen. Passage of the bill would, however, do no such thing.

Much of the media coverage of the bill has noted that the resolution invokes the 1973 War Powers Resolution, which prohibits the president from deploying US troops into armed conflicts without congressional approval. Though that resolution has been ignored many times since its passage, particularly since the War on Terror began in 2001, SJR 54 has been promoted as a “progressive” effort to bring the US’ military adventurism to heel at a time when Saudi Arabia — one of the two countries leading the war against Yemen – is under increased scrutiny.

Yet, the text of the bill itself reveals that SJR 54 invokes the War Powers Resolution in name only. Indeed, while the bill claims to be aimed at achieving “the removal of United State Armed Forces from hostilities in the Republic of Yemen that have not been authorized by Congress,” it contains a major loophole that will allow the majority of US troops in Yemen – if not all – to stay.

As the bill states, it will require the president to remove troops “except United States Armed Forces engaged in operations directed at al Qaeda or associated forces.” Notably though, the only US troops “on the ground” in Yemen that are involved in “hostilities” (i.e., combat operations) are those that are allegedly involved in operations targeting Al Qaeda — operations that the US frequently conducts jointly with the countries waging war against western Yemen, such as the United Arab Emirates.

US troops deployed in Yemen to target Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) also collaborate with the UAE and Saudi Arabia in “intelligence sharing,” “midair refueling,” and “overhead reconnaissance” for forces involved in counterterrorism operations that the US is leading. This cooperation is what the very text of SJR 54 claims to want to end, but only in regard to the coalition’s war in western Yemen. However, the current text of the bill would allow all of this cooperation to continue, just not in areas where there are no claims of AQAP presence.

Thanks to the loophole in SJR 54, all that would need to change for the US military’s assistance to the Saudi/UAE coalition to remain as is would be for either the Saudis, Emiratis or the US to claim that there is an AQAP presence – however small – in an area they wish to target. Given that AQAP regularly collaborates with coalition forces elsewhere in Yemen, the coalition would only need move AQAP forces near a site in western Yemen that they wish to bomb in order for US military involvement in its war against Yemen’s resistance to continue unimpeded.

Alternatively, either of those countries could supply “intelligence” that would seek to link Yemen’s resistance movement Ansarullah or the Houthis to AQAP, thus allowing US involvement in the coalition’s war in Yemen to continue unchanged. This is a very likely scenario if SJR 54 is passed given that some top Trump administration officials have a history ofproviding false intelligence in order to justify aggressive policies and push for military intervention abroad. Furthermore, the Trump administration also has experience linking countries it doesn’t like to Al Qaeda without evidence in order to justify such policies. Thus, linking Yemen’s resistance movement to AQAP despite a lack of evidence is something the Trump administration would likely pursue were this bill to pass in its current form.

In addition, the Sanders-introduced bill will do nothing to stop the US’ use of drone strikes that regularly kill scores of civilians in Yemen. Indeed, a recent investigation conducted by the Associated Press found that at least one-third of all Yemenis killed by US drone strikes in Yemen were civilians, many of them children. Even though US intelligence has regularly shown that the US drone war in Yemen actually strengthens AQAP, this bill would do nothing to stop the US military’s deadliest practice in Yemen, with a documented history of murdering civilians.

The bill’s failure to touch on the US drone war in Yemen is unsurprising given that Bernie Sanders — who introduced SJR 54 — supported drone strikes and the controversial “kill lists” during the Obama administration. Furthermore, when asked on Meet the Press in 2015 if his foreign policy if elected President would involve the use of drones and Special Forces in military operations overseas, Sanders stated that it would involve “all of that and more.”

SJR 54 as mostly kabuki

Given the fact that SJR 54 provides a huge loophole that would prevent it from having the advertised effect, it seems that the measure is meant to serve other purposes, namely political, instead of its stated purpose of ending US military involvement in Yemen. The bill appears to be little more than a PR stunt by Democrats and Democratic-aligned senators to distance themselves from Republicans.

This is supported by the fact that not a single Democrat in the Senate voted against the bill last week, while several Senate Democrats had voted against it earlier this year, setting up the case that only Republicans are against halting the US-backed war in Yemen. Another suggestion that this is the case is how the media widely reported the vote as a “rebuke” of President Trump, as is the fact that 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls, such as Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren, co-sponsored this bill even though they both hold pro-war positions regarding another Middle Eastern country, Iran.

The “anti-war” credentials of Warren — as well as Bernie Sanders, who wrote SJR 54 — have long been questionable, particularly after they both backed James Mattis as Secretary of Defense even though he had led the US assault on the Iraqi city of Fallujah in 2004, an attack that killed thousands of civilians and used chemical weapons that still cause birth defectsin those born in Fallujah over a decade later.

Though the death of Saudi journalist and US resident Jamal Khashoggi has been blamed for the change of heart of Senate Democrats and some Republicans, reporting from MintPressand others has shown that the “outrage” regarding Khashoggi’s death is not about “human rights” but about money and pushing Saudi Crown Prince to move forward with expensive weapons deals and the neoliberalization of Saudi state assets that he had tried to back away from. Viewing the situation from this lens, SJR 54 seems little more than a PR effort to cast Democrats as “anti-war” when they are just as beholden to the military-industrial complex as the Republicans.

Yet, most importantly, the toothless text of SJR 54 shows that relying on either of the corporate, war-loving political parties in the US to end the country’s involvement in the war in Yemen is misguided, as such action if more likely to come about from sustained public pressure or grassroots activism than from politicians beholden to special interests such as the Saudi or weapons lobbies.

Reprinted with permission from MintPressNews.

Iran Warns It Will Respond to Future Israeli Strikes Targeting Syria and Its Allies

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Concerns that the conflict in Syria could soon escalate have now grown exponentially following comments from Iran’s top security official that Israel will face retaliatory actions if the country continues to launch unilateral strikes against Syrian military installations.

Ali Shamkhani, Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, told the Iranian Fars news agency that Israel “will face reactions that would cause sorrow and penitence” if it continues to launch new airstrikes targeting Syria in support of “terrorist groups” that are fighting to overthrow the country’s government.

Shamkhani, who made the statements during a meeting with his Russian counterpart Nikolai Patrushev, added:
The Zionist regime [in Israel] is seeking to create a crisis in Syria and has taken measures in direct support of terrorist groups by hitting the Syrian Army and the forces [in Syria] fighting against terrorism.”
The Iranian official’s warning comes after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asserted on Tuesday that his government would continue to launch strikes against Syria “to prevent the Iranian military buildup in Syria” and that “we will do what is necessary to defend Israel’s security.”

Netanyahu vowed to continue the strikes in defiance of Russia’s recent decision to deliver the S-300 missile-defense system to Syria following the downing of a Russian military plane in the country earlier this month. The Russian military has blamed Israel – which was bombing the Syrian city of Latakia at the time the plane went down – for the plane’s destruction and the death of its crew. However, Israel has denied responsibility for the incident.

As recent comments by Netanyahu make clear, Israel has long justified its hundreds of airstrikes in Syria by asserting that it was bombing Iranian military installations. Israel claims the installations are part of an Iranian effort to establish a military foothold in Syria with the aim of placing pressure on Israel’s northern border.

Iranian and Syrian government officials have repeatedly denied this claim, as Iran’s military presence in the country has long been confined to a handful of military advisors who work with the Syrian Arab Army at the behest of the Syrian government led by President Bashar al-Assad.

Israel’s risk-benefit analysis

However, Israel’s long-standing goal of overthrowing the Syrian government, and Tel Aviv’s covert funding and arming of Syrian “rebels,” suggest that Israel’s motivation for launching the strikes goes far beyond alleged concerns over Iran’s military presence and is instead aimed at increasing Israel’s power in the region and its claim to the Golan Heights — Syrian territory that Israel illegally annexed in 1981.

Netanyahu’s recent assurance that Israeli airstrikes would continue has also provoked warnings from Syria’s government, with Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad stating on Tuesday that Israel should think twice before launching new attacks in Syria once the S-300 systems are in place and that Syria would use the systems in self-defense to target Israeli planes violating its airspace.

Now, with Iranian officials also warning of retaliatory measures following the next Israeli strike on Syria, the ball is in Israel’s court, as the Israeli government now has the power to push Syria’s conflict towards a dramatic escalation whenever it chooses.

With US support for Israel ensured if such an escalation does take place, Israel seems willing to take the risk of sparking a larger war in Syria. Though such a war would bring nothing but chaos to the region, leaked State Department emails have shown that chaos in Syria benefits Israel, suggesting a strategic motive on Israel’s part for the taking of such a risk.

Reprinted with permission from MintPressNews.

After Cutting All UNWRA Humanitarian Aid, US to Award Israel with $3.3B/Year in Military Aid

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A massive spending bill, which would deliver $3.3 billion dollars in military aid to Israel over the next year, passed the House on Wednesday under cover of a media blackout. The US Senate had passed a different version of the same bill in early August, a vote that also went largely unreported.

Now, after the House’s passage of a slightly altered version of the Senate’s spending bill, officially titled the “Ileana Ros-Lehtinen United States-Israel Security Assistance Authorization Act of 2018,” all that remains is for the two chambers of Congress to reconcile their versions before the product is sent to President Trump’s desk to be signed into law. According to Skopos Labs, the bill now has a 90 percent chance of being enacted. If enacted, the bill will be the largest aid package in American history.

As MintPress previously reported, $3.3 billion was supposed to be the annual limit for US military aid to Israel. However, the figure is actually set to be higher this year as a result of Congress’ recent passage of a massive $716 billion defense bill that provides an additional $550 million in US aid for Israeli missile defense systems. That defense bill also authorizes an additional $1 billion for US weapons stockpiles in Israel.

Furthermore, the $3.3 billion in annual aid is set to continue for the next decade based on the current text of the bill and the 2016 Memorandum of Understanding between Israel and the Obama administration — totaling over $38 billion over the next decade when accounting for annual military aid and annual aid given specifically to fund Israeli missile defense.

That startling figure roughly equates to $23,000 for every Jewish family living in Israel.

In addition to the massive sum the legislation would give to the Israeli military, the bill would also mandate that NASA closely cooperate with the Israel Space Agency (ISA), despite the latter’s history of espionage targeting NASA.

The massive amount of aid the US government is set to give to Israel comes amid Israel’s unprecedented crackdown on unarmed protesters in the Gaza Strip and a looming Israeli military operation aimed at “conquering” the Palestinian enclave. The aid package’s imminent package is also set to coincide with efforts to annex the vast majority of Palestine’s West Bank, which has been militarily occupied by Israel since 1967.

As MintPress noted in a previous report, such grave violations of human rights would normally prevent the US government from providing aid to Israel, given that the Leahy Laws enable the US to withhold military assistance from units and individuals in foreign security forces if they have committed a gross violation of human rights.

However, the US government – particularly under the rabidly pro-Israel administration of President Trump, which just last week cut all funding for Palestinian humanitarian relief through UNRWA – has consistently shown that it is willing to bend the rules for Israel.

Congress waves the Israeli flag

The $3.3 billion military aid package was only one of the bills passed by the House that is set to benefit Israel. Another bill, which has also been largely overlooked by the media, would seek to create a special government envoy tasked with monitoring “anti-Semitism” and criticism of Israel worldwide.

According to the text of the bill – officially titled the “Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism Act of 2017” – the envoy would “serve as the primary advisor to, and coordinate efforts across, the United States government relating to monitoring and combating anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic incitement that occur in foreign countries,” and have the rank of ambassador. Only two members of the House voted against the bill: Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) and Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-CA).

While an effort to combat “anti-Semitism” is a noble cause, the recent endorsement of a controversial definition of the term by Congress, which defines certain criticisms of the state of Israel as anti-Semitic, makes it likely that any envoy appointed to this position would be focused on clamping down on domestic and international criticisms of the Israeli government.

Given the potential dangers that such a position could pose to free speech, not just in the US but abroad, it is surprising that this bill’s passage by an overwhelming majority received next to no media attention. Yet, in light of the media blackout also surrounding the imminent approval of the US massive aid package to the Israeli military, it is perhaps not so surprising.

Reprinted with permission from MintPressNews.

One Year After Calling Idlib ‘Al Qaeda’s Largest Safe Haven Since 9/11,’ the US Govt is Trying to Save it

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As the Syrian government and its allies prepare to begin a military offensive against the last rebel-held province in the country, top US government officials and even US President Donald Trump have recently urged Syria to refrain from “recklessly” attacking the Idlib province, warning that it could result in a high civilian death toll. These recent statements of US government officials have sought to portray Idlib as chiefly populated by civilians and benign opposition “rebels.”

Yet, just last year, one of the US government’s top counterterrorism officials involved in the country’s Syria and Iraq policy stated on video that, in contrast to current government statements, Idlib is dominated by none other than the Al Qaeda terrorist group and that the province should be a major focus of US counterterrorism policy given the threat that Idlib represents to global efforts to fight terrorism.

Speaking last July at a conference organized by the Middle East Institute, Brett McGurk – the US government’s Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL (Daesh, ISIS) – called Syria’s Idlib province “the largest Al Qaeda safe haven since 9/11 tied directly to Ayman al-Zawahiri [current leader of Al Qaeda].” He then immediately added that the Al Qaeda presence in Idlib was a “huge problem” and had been so “for some time.” McGurk later stated that the efforts by foreign governments, including the US, “to send in tens of thousands of tons of weapons and looking the other way as foreign fighters come into Syria may not have been the best approach. Al Qaeda has taken full advantage of it and Idlib now is a huge problem.”

McGurk’s characterization of Idlib as an “Al Qaeda safe haven” has also been reported on by the mainstream US press. For instance, last February, The Washington Post published an article that stated that Idlib, “the biggest surviving rebel stronghold in northern Syria,” was “falling under the control of Al Qaeda-linked extremists.” One of the rebels quoted in the Post article stated that Al-Qaeda-linked radicals “are controlling every aspect of life” in Idlib and that “Al-Qaeda ideology is spreading everywhere.”

That same article went on to report that most rebels have joined one of the two most powerful factions in Idlib: Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a coalition formed by Syria’s Al Qaeda branch al-Nusra Front; or the “more moderate” Ahrar al-Sham, a coalition known for being a common battlefield ally of al-Nusra Front. The New York Times wrote in 2015 that Ahrar al-Sham membership included associates of Osama bin Laden.

However, recent statements made by Trump administration officials omit this key fact, despite the fact that the Al Qaeda presence and threat within the Idlib province remains unchanged from last year. In fact, since last year, Al Qaeda’s presence in Idlib has only grown, as Al Qaeda affiliates in other parts of Syria were evacuated to Idlib province as part of several deals negotiated with the Syrian Arab Army that resulted in the surrender of then-rebel-held territories to the Syrian government.

Unsurprisingly, US mainstream media outlets now echo the Trump administration on Idlib, despite their own past admissions that the province is dominated by Al Qaeda-linked terrorist groups. For instance, a New York Times article published this past Sunday opened by lamenting that the Syrian government offensive targeting Idlib presented a threat to “rebel fighters and their civilian supporters who rose up more than seven years ago demanding regime change,” noting only in the story’s 21st paragraph that these same “rebel fighters” are “affiliated with Al Qaeda.”

While it may seem striking that the Trump administration would spring to the defense of a known “Al Qaeda safe haven,” government officials have stated in recent months that the US’ objectives in Syria are no longer about fighting terrorism but about countering the “Iranian menace,” as National Security Adviser John Bolton stated in July. Thus, it seems that defending Al Qaeda has become par for the course given the Trump administration’s ultimate goal of targeting Iran, a country that has spent much of the past seven years fighting terrorists like ISIS and Al Qaeda in Syria.

Reprinted with permission from MintPressNews.

Is Mattis Next on Chopping Block for Questioning the ‘Adelson Agenda’?

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Like Rex Tillerson and H.R. McMaster before him, Secretary of Defense James Mattis – one of the longest-serving members of the Trump cabinet – may soon be out of a job. Just as was the case for the former secretary of state and the former national security adviser, media reports are now asserting that Mattis has been shut out of major White House decisions for months and is increasingly “out of the loop.”

According to
 NBC News, Mattis was shut out of major administration decisions such as President Trump’s decision to tear up the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (better known as the Iran nuclear deal), Trump’s call to militarize outer space, and his decision to cancel war games near North Korea during recent negotiations with that country’s leadership.

The Secretary of Defense’s “fall from grace” is a dramatic departure from the early days of the administration, when Trump – out of respect for Mattis – kept him informed of key decisions even when they had disagreed. Now, however, the report notes that Trump relies heavily, if not exclusively, on the advice of two administration officials: 
John Bolton and Mike Pompeo, the very men who replaced McMaster and Tillerson.

Overall, the report mirrors those that had preceded the firings of both
 Rex Tillerson from the top post at the State Department and H.R. McMaster from his position as national security adviser. In each of those instances, first Tillerson and then McMaster were described by administration officials as being “at odds” with the President over key decisions such as North Korea and the Iran deal.

The similarities, however, between Mattis’ fall from favor and those experienced by his former allies in the administration don’t end there.

The price of crossing Sheldon

The firings of Tillerson and McMaster were notable for the involvement of powerful pro-Israel figures — particularly Zionist billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who is currently the largest donor to both Trump and the Republican Party. Both of those figures 
had opposed major policy objectives that were of great interest to Adelson, especially the destruction of the Iran deal.

In addition to trying to save the Iran deal, Tillerson had further earned the ire of Israel hard-liners by demanding that Israel 
return millions in US military aid last year that had exceeded the figure agreed upon under the Obama administration. However, McMaster’s reference to Israel as an “occupying power” and his acknowledgment of Palestine as a state not only angered the Israel lobby but also prompted groups like the Zionist Organization of America and even Adelson himself to pave the way for McMaster to be replaced with Iran war-hawk and Adelson confidante John Bolton.

Now, with both McMaster and Tillerson gone, Mattis seems to be on the chopping block for a similar reason, especially given the fact that he had not been consulted on the destruction of the Iran deal – a deal that
 Mattis supported. In addition, Mattis, though he never went as far as McMaster or Tillerson in upsetting the Israel lobby, did notably oppose Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, a policy move that had been directed by Adelson himself. Mattis had worried that the decision would increase unrest in the region.

Furthermore, prior to becoming Secretary of Defense, Mattis had 
criticized Israel’s expansion of illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank, asserting that it could lead to an “apartheid state,” and had claimed that the US’ pro-Israel bias had alienated the US from “moderate Arabs” in the Middle East.

A fly in the ointment on Kushner’s “peace” plan?

Yet, it is not surprising that talk of Mattis’ lack on influence and an imminent departure from the White House accompanies the White House’s upcoming “peace plan” for the Israel-Palestine conflict. Indeed, Jared Kushner, the administration’s Middle East peace envoy, recently wrapped up a trip to the region and 
asserted on Monday that the plan would be ready “soon.”

Given Kushner’s own 
Zionist background as well as his support for illegal settlements and recent receipt of $30 million from a top Israeli financial institution, experts have warned that Kushner’s “peace” plan would likely call for the continued military occupation of the West Bank, would offer no right of return, and would not give Palestine East Jerusalem as part of a future state.

Such a plan is likely to be rejected by Palestinians and lead to increased protests. With Mattis’ past and more recent history raising concerns that such policies would lead to a more insecure Middle East and harm the US’ regional objectives, the imminent release of the Kushner plan may be the perfect excuse for the Trump administration to show Mattis the door.

Reprinted with permission from MintPressNews.