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How to Be a Rogue Superpower

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Posted on Jul 17, 2013
Abode of Chaos (CC BY 2.0)

By Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch

(Page 3)

How to Down a Plane to (Not) Catch a Whistleblower

In this light, no incident has been more revealing than the downing of the plane of Bolivian President Evo Morales, the democratically elected head of a sovereign Latin American nation, and not an official enemy of the United States.  Angry Bolivian authorities termed it a “kidnapping” or “imperialist hijack.”  It was, at the least, an act for which it’s hard to imagine a precedent.

Evidently officials in Washington believed that the plane bringing the Bolivian president back from Moscow was also carrying Snowden.  As a result, the U.S. seems to have put enough pressure on four European countries (France, Spain, Portugal, and Italy) to force that plane to land for refueling in a fifth country (Austria).  There—again, U.S. pressure seems to have been the crucial factor—it was searched under disputed circumstances and Snowden not found.

So much is not known about what happened, in part because there has been no serious reporting from Washington on the subject.  The U.S. media has largely ignored the American role in the downing of the plane, an incident regularly described here as if the obvious hadn’t happened.  This may, at least in part, be the result of the Obama administration’s implacable pursuit of whistleblowers and leakers right into the phone records of reporters.  The government has made such a point of its willingness to pursue whistleblowers via journalists that, as Associated Press President Gary Pruitt recently pointed out, national security sources are drying up.  Key figures in Washington are scared to talk even off the record (now that “off” turns out to be potentially very “on”).  And the Justice Department’s new “tighter” guildelines for accessing reporters’ records are clearly filled with loopholes and undoubtedly little more than window dressing.

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Still, it’s reasonable to imagine that when Morales’s plane took off from Moscow there were top U.S. officials gathered in a situation room (à la the bin Laden affair), that the president was in the loop, and that the intelligence people said something like: we have an 85% certainty that Snowden is on that plane.  Obviously, the decision was made to bring it down and enough pressure was placed on key officials in those five countries to cause them to bow to Washington’s will.

One can certainly imagine that, but know it?  At the moment, not a chance and, unlike in the raid that killed bin Laden, a triumphant situation-room photo hasn’t been released, since there was, of course, no triumph.  Many questions arise.  Why, to mention just one, did Washington not allow Morales’s plane to land for refueling in Portugal, as originally planned, and simply strong-arm the Portuguese into searching it?  As with so much else, we don’t know.

We only know that, to bring five countries into line that way, the pressure from Washington (or its local representatives) must have been intense.  Put another way: key officials in those countries must have realized quickly that they stood in the way of a truly powerful urge by the planet’s superpower to get one fugitive.  It was an urge so strong that it overrode any other tactical considerations, and so opened the way for Venezuela, Bolivia, and Nicaragua to offer asylum to Snowden with the support of much of the rest of Latin America.

Imagine for a moment that an American president’s plane had been brought down in a similar fashion.  Imagine that a consortium of nations pressured by, say, China or Russia, did it and that, with the president aboard, it was then searched for a Chinese or Soviet “dissident.”  Imagine the reaction here.  Imagine the shock.  Imagine the accusations of “illegality,” of “skyjacking,” of “international terrorism.”  Imagine the 24/7 media coverage.  Imagine the information pouring out of Washington about what would no doubt have been termed “an act of war.”

Of course, such a scenario is inconceivable on this one-way planet.  So instead, just think about the silence here over the Morales incident, the lack of coverage, the lack of reporting, the lack of outrage, the lack of shock, the lack of… well, just about anything at all.

Instead, the twenty-first-century version of deterrence theory ruled the day, even though Snowden is the proof that deterrence via manhunts, prosecution, imprisonment, and the like has proven ineffective when it comes to leaks.  It’s worth pointing out that what may be the two largest leaks of official documents in history—Bradley Manning’s and Snowden’s—happened in a country increasingly under the sway of deterrence theory.

Slouching Toward Washington to Be Born

And yet don’t think that no one has been affected, no one intimidated.  Consider, for instance, a superior piece of recent reporting by Eric Lichtblau of the New York Times.  His front-page story, “In Secret, Court Vastly Broadens Powers of NSA,” might once have sent shock waves through Washington and perhaps the country as well.  It did, after all, reveal how, in “more than a dozen classified rulings,” a secret FISA court, which oversees the American surveillance state, “has created a secret body of law” giving the NSA sweeping new powers.

Here’s the paragraph that should have had Americans jumping out of their skins (my italics added): “The 11-member Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, known as the FISA court, was once mostly focused on approving case-by-case wiretapping orders. But since major changes in legislation and greater judicial oversight of intelligence operations were instituted six years ago, it has quietly become almost a parallel Supreme Court, serving as the ultimate arbiter on surveillance issues and delivering opinions that will most likely shape intelligence practices for years to come, the officials said.”


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