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To Kill A MOCKINGBIRD: Ending CIA Domestic Media Operations

Vera Wilde; locololastock, deviant art
Written by Vera Wilde

Yesterday Google began trading under its same old ticker (GOOGL), with a different holding company. Alphabet, the new company, has dropped Google’s “Don’t Be Evil” motto.

We need to talk about the repercussions of perceived moral ambiguity in public-private telecommunications (telecom) partnerships. Companies with big data, like Google and the other big telecoms that dominate the U.S. media landscape, are responsible for deciding when and how to share some or all of that information with the government for national security reasons. Under the main post-Snowden reform so far — June’s USA FREEDOM Act — the feds have effectively delegated domestic mass surveillance to these companies and foreign intelligence partners. So we need to know if they’re being evil, or no longer have a shared, democratic understanding with the public of what that means.

If public-private telecom collaboration as captured by special interests in the U.S. today is a large-scale issue too big to comprehend at the everyday level, Donald Trump is a small and insignificant manifestation of the phenomenon we can wrap our heads around. Mr. Trump is not worth my time or yours as a Presidential candidate. But he’s very good at capturing attention. Attention is a cognitive resource. It’s the resource we’re playing for in the political information environment game. It’s arguably the most valuable resource in the world, because it’s absolutely limited, finite, and irreplaceable. So agenda-setting is game in politics including campaigns and presidencies. Like all good negotiators know, you don’t win by winning the debate. You win by setting its terms, relying on cognitive biases such as the anchoring bias to skew the ensuing debate in your favor.

America is losing this attention war, because CIA domestic media operations continued after post-Watergate reforms attempted to check them. When former FBI Deputy Director Mark Felt blew the whistle as “Deep Throat” by giving internal documents on illegal CIA interference in domestic politics to Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein — the resultant public outcry sparked Congressional inquiries, President Nixon’s resignation, and legislative reform. But that reform volley, like all historical pendulum swings, was imperfect and contested. Illegal domestic surveillance, psychological operations (psyops), entrapment, and media manipulation have continued.

Operation MOCKINGBIRD — an operation the Church Committee investigated — is one of the former CIA domestic media operations that continued post-Watergate under another name. Begun soon after the CIA’s inception, MOCKINGBIRD included decentralized, cooperative, and well-organized covert CIA infiltration and influence of students and media groups, including the National Student Association and The Washington Post. Its operations included recruiting journalists at home and abroad to support the CIA’s position, in exchange for apparently offering inside information and serving national security. These positions included decisive operational support, especially in the form of psyops, for overthrowing over countries’ democratic governments, such those in Iran (Operation Ajax) and Guatemala (Operation PBSUCCESS). General and President Eisenhower grew so concerned about covert CIA operations at odds with stated American foreign policy — and especially the possibility that those activities might prioritize the old New England aristocracy’s corporate interests over the public interest — that he warned America of abuse potential in the growing military-industrial complex. Corporate capture of the political process through covert operations, not the military and the corporations themselves, were the threat then. And they are a threat today.

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A Rich Man’s War and A Poor Man’s Fight”

As University of Pennsylvania Political Science Professor Anne Norton testified to Congress in 2005, the New England aristocracy’s corporate interests continue to threaten national security. General and President Eisenhower warned of this internal threat. He called it the military-industrial complex. Norton identifies the same threat today as the so-called neoconservative (neocon) political movement — although she shows it’s neither conservative nor democratic.

“This neoconservative policy in the wake of 9/11 and more immediately in the wake of the attacks in London and the continuing news from Iraq, obliges us to conclude that neoconservative foreign policy has failed; to spread democracy, or diminish terror. It has succeeded rather well, however, at diminishing democracy at home, while failing to extend it abroad.”

This neocon movement generated the illegal Iraq War responsible for hundred of thousands dead, millions displaced, and trillions of U.S. taxpayer dollars spent. True to de Tocqueville’s warning, the all-volunteer nature of the military made the invasion “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” Over a million American veterans injured in Iraq and Afghanistan are still paying for that fight.

Yet, the case for the neocons’ alleged domestic coup d’état has remained largely circumstantial. Old New England families like the Rockefellers and Bushes who have long held disproportionate political power, corporate influence, and private wealth, and their friends who trained under German émigré Leo Strauss and Straussians, seem to rotate through the American political establishment with high frequency promoting an imperialist American Mideast policy that benefits American and British oil and gas companies. But experts say it ain’t “blood for oil.”

Political scientists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt have noted that pressure from Israel and the Israel Lobby was also decisive in the decision to attack Iraq. Israel is the only country to whom Iran’s nuclear program poses the first preeminent national security threat. In the U.S., Europe, and Middle East, people perceive the first threat as ISIS, while people in Latin America and Africa — traditionally contested areas in Great Power information and other wars (e.g., Cold War proxy battles between the U.S. and U.S.S.R.) — are correctly more concerned about climate change.

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Citing Phil Zelikow — former member of the president’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, 9/11 Commission executive director, and later counselor to Condi Rice — speaking to a University of Virginia audience in 2002, Mearsheimer and Walt say the real threat was against Israel. The Israeli Mossad has a recent history of conducting false flag attacks against Israel’s many regional enemies, going so far as to pose as American spies. These attacks threaten American interests, as do the spread of Israeli intelligence norms about rule of law to the U.S. intelligence community — norms that permit illegal actions such as political assassinations. Yet high-level CIA cooperation with the Mossad continues. The neocons consider threats against Israel equivalent to threats against the U.S. That logic might help explain daily multi-million dollar U.S. bombings of Iraq and Syria today.

It might also help explain the current media and political campaign drawing attention to nuclear threats. For example, CNN recently chose to set the terms of the political discourse in this terrain under the headline: “Dirty bomb: Just how worried should we be as ISIS seeks ultimate threat?” Septuagenarian and former German MP Jürgen Todenhöfer, who spent ten days as the first Western journalist permitted to embed with ISIS, warns the group is planning a nuclear holocaust. And Physicians for Civil Defense (PCD) issued a press release through PR Newswire entitled “Nuclear Threat May Be Imminent; U.S. Unprepared.”

PR Newswire is a New York City-based news agency owned by UBM plc with over 10,000 syndicated websites and over 500,000 information environment professionals including journalists in its network. It makes about half its revenue from U.S. domestic distribution.  London-based UBM may be preparing to sell PR Newswire, possibly for capital to expand its events division through mergers and acquisitions. If the Snowden revelations have taught us anything, it should be: Where you see telecom M&A, think surveillance.

Compare PCD’s statement with the American Medical Association’s evidence-based Violence Prevention statement, advocating political efforts to address violence against women and gun violence as public health problems. Someone should be required to tell Congress whether PCD is engaging with voluntary cooperation with the CIA in what might otherwise be illegal domestic media operations in order to prime Americans to nuclear threat, propping up flagging public support for aggressive Mideast foreign policies. (American public opinion is pretty consistently isolationist in this regard.)

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The nuclear threat is the crown jewel of the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) arsenal of war drum-beating. Then-Vice President Dick Cheney relied heavily on it in his 2002 speech at the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) national convention in Nashville, Tennessee, kicking off the George W. Bush Administration’s successful public campaign to invade Iraq. The CIA and independent investigators later reported there were no WMDs in Iraq when we invaded in 2003. Before the invasion, the Bush Administration cherry-picked the CIA’s report on Iraqi WMD programs to make the case for war sound much stronger than it actually was, and to generate associational linkages between al-Qaeda and Iraq that did not exist — except in the frightened public’s mind. (Now they exist.)

Former CIA leadership has voiced concerns that Bush Administration officials were going beyond the scope of what CIA intelligence estimates supported in publicly campaigning for the 2003 Iraq invasion. In this sense, it’s like the CIA was the fall guy for the neocons. Diffuse, decentralized, and unaccountable domestic media operations associated with current and former CIA leadership are unaccountable to the people, and can be blamed for mistakes such as the Iraq invasion without enabling direct accountability of the political leaders behind such policy decisions.

The neocons might be playing a similar — and similarly unaccountable — associational game now with ISIS and Iran, using political psychological priming (implicit memory) techniques. These techniques have documented domestic media use associated with CIA-affiliated, neocon leaders, such as former Director of Central Intelligence and President George H.W. Bush. For example, Princeton University political scientist Tali Mendelberg documented the Bush campaign’s successful use of those associational priming techniques in domestic media operations in the 1988 Presidential campaign “Willie Horton” ad campaign. Mendelberg’s research shows Bush’s ads used the power of unconscious racial stereotypes, fears, and resentments, playing the race card in a powerfully effective yet plausibly deniable way.

Similarly, priming about a nuclear apocalypse — consistent with both the Willie Horton ad campaign’s use of priming, and with prior U.S. Governmental psyops abroad — might explain ISIS’s insistence that the end is near, as well as growing fears in the West that ISIS is a nuclear threat. Such priming might turn a set of strategic opponents we could not legitimately contest with force — such as peaceful Arab democracies who leaders want to do things like auditing U.S. and U.K. oil company books — into enemies of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East who we must defeat to save the world.

This is a multi-part article

About the author

Vera Wilde

Reformed Harvard Kennedy Fellow, wondering artist, wandering artist. www.wildethinks.com

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To Kill A MOCKINGBIRD: Ending CIA Domestic Media Operations

by Vera Wilde
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