Through the Looking Glass
How Can We Recognize Our Friends in the Mixed-Up World of Donald Trump?
(This piece first appeared at tomdispatch.com.)
You know you’re living in a looking-glass world when former Vice President Dick Cheney speaks out against one of Donald Trump’s executive orders. He’s a good example of how past adversaries of movements for peace and justice are lining up against our current adversary, the new president.
The United States, Cheney told radio host Hugh Hewitt, should not exclude people from our territory on the basis of religion. That was just a few days after Trump had signed an executive order entitled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States.” Such a move, said Cheney, “goes against everything we stand for and believe in.”
In the same interview, Cheney revealed the origins of his personal affinity for Muslim refugees. His own ancestors, he said, arrived on this continent to escape religious persecution. “They were Puritans,” he explained, adding, “There wasn’t anybody here then when they came.” No one? It was a sparkling display of precisely the European-American solipsism that so deeply marked the Cheney years in power.
Refugees, he acknowledged, do represent “a serious problem.” To begin to solve it, however, “You gotta go back and look at why they’re here. They’re here because of what’s happening in the Middle East.”
The refugees Cheney refers to aren’t “here,” of course, or what would be the point of Trump’s entrance ban? Otherwise, I’d have to agree with the former vice president: you do need to look at “what’s happening” but also — something he didn’t mention — what happened in the Middle East to explain their need for refuge. Refugees from Iraq and Syria (among other places) have indeed lost their homes and homelands by the millions, in significant part because of the very invasions and occupations that Cheney and his president, George W. Bush, launched in the Greater Middle East, radically destabilizing that part of the world.
The Enemy of My Enemy?
What should it mean for those of us hoping to resist the grim presidency of Donald Trump to find Dick Cheney, even momentarily and on a single issue, on our side? One thing it certainly can’t mean is that Cheney stands for the same “everything” that moved thousands of people to rush to U.S. airports, demanding the release of visitors, immigrants, and green card holders detained under Trump’s new order. Although in the Muslim refugees of today he may indeed recognize a reflection of his Puritan ancestors, Cheney’s disagreement with Donald Trump does not, in fact, make him a friend of the cause of compassion, justice, or the rule of law.
Few of us who spent eight years opposing Bush and Cheney or who remember their record of invasions, occupations, torture, black sites, and so much more are likely to imagine that his opposition to the ban on refugees makes him our friend. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t take some satisfaction from where he’s landed on this issue.
It’s been harder, however, for many of us to find clarity when it comes to certain of the other war hawks who, for their own reasons, don’t trust Trump.
It’s a trap most of us avoided last summer when 50 members of the national security establishment, including former National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and one of George W. Bush’s CIA directors, Michael Hayden, wrote an open letter warning the world that Trump lacked “the character, values, and experience to be president.” We recognized that the letter signers themselves lacked the “character, values, and experience” to comment. After all, in the Middle East and elsewhere, this bunch had helped to pave the way for Trump’s rise.
In recent months, as the Russian hacking scandal hit and Trump’s feud with the CIA gained ever more media attention, that Agency has proven another matter. Here is a real danger to avoid: in our efforts to delegitimize Donald Trump, it’s important not to inadvertently legitimize an outfit that most of us have long opposed for its vicious campaigns around the world. Just because Donald Trump all but called its operatives Nazis shouldn’t lead the rest of us to forget its long history of deceit or accept its pronouncements at face value because they happen to fit what we would like to believe.
When Barack Obama said that there was convincing evidence Russia had used its hacking efforts to throw the U.S. election to Trump, the president-elect not surprisingly labeled the claim “ridiculous.” But there’s also been a bit of sympathy for the CIA in some odd places. For example, long-time CIA critic and Hullabaloo founder Heather Digby Parton (generally known as “Digby”) wrote at Salon that the CIA “understandably” felt there was something “a tad unfair” about the Trump transition team calling the Agency “the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.” After all, they were under a lot of pressure from the White House back then. As Digby wrote, “It’s now known that Vice President Dick Cheney went out to [CIA headquarters in] Langley [Virginia] in order to personally twist arms and ‘stovepipe’ the intelligence report on Iraq.”
That’s certainly true, but it’s also true that the CIA director of that moment, George Tenet, assured President Bush that there was a “slam dunk case” that Saddam Hussein had such weaponry. The fact is that the CIA caved in to pressure from top administration officials for the intel they so desperately wanted for the invasion they already knew they were going to launch in Iraq. That is not exactly a ringing endorsement of the agency’s integrity or political independence. An “independent” CIA is bad enough, but the CIA’s vulnerability to political pressure from the White House is another reason we should be cautious about using Agency pronouncements as an instrument against Donald Trump. That’s the slippery terrain we find ourselves on now.
Digby is certainly no admirer of the CIA, and her article wasn’t primarily focused on the quality of its intelligence under Bush, but on a far more recent turf war between the Agency and the FBI. She rightly calls out FBI Director James Comey for his 11th hour intervention in the election, the way he alerted Congress to the (vanishingly tiny) possibility that the hard drive on the computer that Anthony Weiner shared with his wife, Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin, might have contained evidence of Clinton’s failure to protect State Department emails. Nevertheless, the reader is left to infer that — at least when it comes to intelligence rather than clandestine operations — the CIA’s pronouncements might prove a reliable instrument against Donald Trump, an urge that was relatively commonplace among opponents of the new president.
For example, the Atlantic, which has carried excellent reporting about CIA deceptions, published a piece by Kelly Magsamen, who served on the National Security Council (NSC) under both Bush and Obama, expressing alarm at Trump’s plan to exclude the CIA director from his version of the NSC. (In fact, the new president reversed himself on the matter almost immediately.) It’s not surprising that Magsamen would have this view. For those of us who would like to dismantle the entire national security edifice, however, it would be shortsighted indeed to attack Trump by shoring up the reputation of an agency — the CIA — that, as former counterintelligence officer John Kiriakou has suggested, the country and the world “do not need.” Kariakou, you may remember, was jailed for discussing the CIA’s torture program with a journalist.
Support for America’s spooks has continued to resound in odd places. For example, there’s been much outrage expressed at President Trump’s bizarre behavior on a visit to CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. In a performance that was indeed shocking, he used the occasion to complain about the way the media underestimated the size of the crowd at his inauguration, after which he asserted that God had stopped the rain during his Inaugural Address.
What many commentators found far more bizarre and disturbing, however, was that Trump gave his performance in front of a memorial wall commemorating CIA agents who had died on the job. Writing for the not-exactly-right-wing Huffington Post, Neil McCarthy claimed that the wall honors “un-named heroes who have died in our service.” In a New Yorker article headlined “Trump’s Vainglorious Affront to the CIA,” former Washington Post diplomatic correspondent Robin Wright chided the new president for his lack of respect for the Agency’s martyrs. Trump, she suggested, should have followed the example of President Ronald Reagan, who on his first visit to the CIA told the assembled staff:
The work you do each day is essential to the survival and to the spread of human freedom. You remain the eyes and ears of the free world. You are the ‘trip wire’ over which totalitarian rule must stumble in their quest for global domination…
While I would never applaud anyone’s untimely, violent death, the fact that Donald Trump (despite his denials) has been feuding with the CIA shouldn’t erase that agency’s history or just what those agents died defending. Trump’s annoyance shouldn’t magically transform an agency responsible for decades of violent and bloody coups against democratic governments in places like Iran, Guatemala, the Congo, and Chile into an organization “essential to the survival and spread of human freedom.” Whatever pleasure we may take in Trump’s irritation, it doesn’t vindicate the murder of between 26,000 and 41,000 Vietnamese, many of then tortured to death, in the CIA’s notorious Phoenix program during the Vietnam War. It doesn’t erase the training in torture and repression its agents provided to dictatorships around the world. And it certainly doesn’t make the CIA’s use of terror and torture in its black sites as part of the Bush administration’s “war on terror” any less horrific or illegal.
Nor does the CIA’s future look much more promising than its past. When it comes to torture, its new head Mike Pompeo has clearly wanted to have it both ways. During his confirmation hearing, he proved unwilling to call waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation” methods torture, but did acknowledge that they are illegal under a 2015 law, which limits interrogation techniques to those described in the U.S. Army Field Manual.
There are two problems with reliance on that law. The present Field Manual contains a classified annex, which permits among other things repeated 12-hour bouts of sensory deprivation and solitary confinement for up to 30 days at a time. Both of these are forms of the cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment prohibited by the U.N. Convention against Torture. In addition, the manual itself is up for revision in two years. A new version might provide very different guidance.
But it’s not clear that Pompeo is actually wedded to the manual anyway. As Human Rights Watch (HRW) points out, in his written testimony for his confirmation hearing he “indicated that he would consult with CIA staff to determine whether the application of the Army Field Manual was an ‘impediment’ to intelligence-gathering, and whether it needed to be rewritten.” Note as well that Gina Haspel, Pompeo’s newly appointed deputy director at the Agency, is notorious for her involvement in its black sites and torture practices in the Bush years (as well as the destruction of video tapes of waterboarding sessions — evidence, that is, of those criminal activities).
Trump himself supports such torture practices. On January 25th, he told ABC News that he still clings to his belief that torture “works.” His evidence? The testimony of “people at the highest level of intelligence” who “as recently as twenty-four hours ago” told him that it works “absolutely.” It seems likely one of those “people” was Gina Haspel, who has a good reason to cling to that same belief.
In reporting ABC’s interview with Trump, CNN, like most mainstream media, allowed itself to be distracted by the question of whether or not torture is an effective way of getting information from someone. It isn’t, as the Senate Intelligence Committee concluded in its landmark 2014 report. However, the question really shouldn’t be whether torture “works.” The question should be: Is it either moral or legal? And Donald Trump notwithstanding, the answer in both cases is no.
Pompeo is also a big fan of NSA-style mass surveillance and has called for the reinstatement of the NSA’s massive secret collection of telephone, Internet, and social media metadata. The telephone data part of the program officially expired in November 2015 as a result of the USA Freedom Act, passed earlier that year. Under the new arrangement, metadata is held by the phone companies, rather than directly by the NSA, which now needs a FISA warrant to get access to those records. Internet and social media records are still directly available to the NSA, however.
But that’s not enough for Pompeo. Human Rights Watch points to a 2016 Wall Street Journal op-ed, in which Pompeo urged Congress to “’pass a law re-establishing collection of all metadata’ — that is, records of communications, such as their dates, parties, and durations — ‘and combining it with publicly available financial and lifestyle information into a comprehensive, searchable database.’”
HRW observes that, in spite of “repeated written and oral questions in the context of the hearing, Pompeo remained vague on what he meant by the potentially expansive and discriminatory term ‘lifestyle information.’” As one devoted to the lesbian “lifestyle,” I don’t find this particularly encouraging.
Fortunately for those of us who hope to see the national security state dismantled someday, as recent events have indicated, that edifice and its friends in both parties are not a seamless whole. There are runs and tears throughout its fabric, and part of our job is to help open those gaps wider — always keeping in mind that while politics may make strange bedfellows, there are some people you don’t ever want to sleep with. Even in the Trump era, the enemy of my enemy is not my friend, at least not when that enemy is the CIA.
Enemies of Enemies of Enemies
If the CIA is the enemy of my enemy, then Vladimir Putin’s government in Russia must be the enemy of the enemy of my enemy. Is it therefore my friend?
This is a complicated and delicate question. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has just set its doomsday clock forward to two-and-a-half minutes to midnight, 30 seconds closer to catastrophe.
In the shadow of nuclear war, who wouldn’t be eager to see tensions between Russia and the United States defused? At the same time, I become uncomfortable when some of my colleagues on the left appear to believe that any adversary of U.S. hegemony may represent a potential ally for us.
For example, the Nation’s Stephen Cohen, whose many years of writing on the Soviet Union served as an important corrective to the official narrative of the time, characterizes those who today are wary of Putin as “enemies of détente.” He points to a New York Times editorial whose descriptions “of Putin’s leadership over the years” were “so distorted they seemed more like Saturday Night Live’s ongoing parodies” and calls out Times columnist Paul Krugman’s “neo-McCarthyite baiting” of Trump for his admiration of Putin.
I can agree with Cohen that Krugman goes over the top when he refers to the present administration as the “Putin-Trump regime.” But it’s a mistake to equate legitimate suspicion of Russia and Putin with the efforts of Senator Joe McCarthy to discredit the U.S. left (and liberals) during the Cold War. The Russian Federation is not the Soviet Union, and distrust of Vladimir Putin is not McCarthyism.
Cohen is certainly correct that Putin has good reason to be wary of what he calls “NATO’s highly provocative buildup on Russia’s Western border.” But even if Russia quite rightly objects to the way NATO has moved east, it doesn’t prove that Putin’s government didn’t try to influence the U.S. election. Such things are hardly beyond the realm of possibility. After all, the United States has a long history of doing just that to countries around the world (as did the Soviet Union in its day).
That the Washington establishment opposes Russian challenges to the U.S. urge for global dominance doesn’t make Vladimir Putin any less an autocrat, or Russia under his rule any more a country to emulate. Indeed, on January 27th, the Russian parliament voted 380-3 to decriminalize domestic violence. A week later, Putin signed the bill into law. Which way, I wonder, would Donald Trump go if similar legislation were on the table here?
What About Friends?
When the thieves who run our government fall out, we should be glad — and find ways to drive the wedge deeper. When John McCain does something we approve of, like objecting to Trump’s executive order on immigration, we can agree with him, but notice as well that, in the next breath, he says he supports Trump’s “commitment to rebuilding our” (already vast and unprecedentedly powerful) military.
There’s a difference between people who find themselves sharing the same adversary and people who can be, to use an old-fashioned term, in solidarity with each other. Those of us who oppose U.S. military adventurism abroad and inequality, racism, and sexism at home need to remember who our friends are. The next few years must be a time of building broad coalitions and tightening the bonds among organizations and people who believe that, even now, a better world is still possible.
In the mixed-up looking-glass universe that is Trumplandia, we are going to need our friends more than ever. This is true domestically, which means, for instance, that tenants’ rights groups will need to keep jumping into struggles for immigrant rights (as is already happening in many places), and veterans’ organizations will need to keep on supporting fights to preserve Native land and water rights as in the struggle over the Dakota Access pipeline. It’s true on the international level, as well. We will need to build strong ties with people in Europe fighting the rise of the far right there, and to continue our solidarity with the victims of U.S. military actions around the world.
But it’s also true at the level of our individual lives. Now especially we need contact with the people we love to keep us strong and hopeful. Now is a good time to remind your friends that you love them, and that you will have their backs. It’s a time to march together, but also to eat together. To strategize and organize, but also to make each other laugh. It’s a time to remember who our adversaries are, but also to cherish our friends.