Late last year I was interviewed from Jerusalem by veteran Australian journalist and campaigner Julie Macken, for her radio program Behind the Headlines, about “fake news” and my experiences as a journalist over the last decade in Israel/Palestine, South Sudan, Afghanistan and beyond. My interview begins around 15:50 (with a few scratchy sound issues via Skype):
My just published article in the Los Angeles Review of Books:
How the CIA Tricked The World’s Best Writers
By Joel Whitney
After the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, fear gripped the United States, and it wasn’t only conservatives who wanted to publicly show that they were committed to patriotic ideals. Filmmakers might be excused if, in that context, some nationalistic, propagandistic images made their way into theaters. But long before that fateful September day, liberal Hollywood had a long relationship with the CIA, the 1990s having just seen an obvious upsurge in collaboration. Former clandestine officer Chase Brandon joined the CIA in 1996 as a liaison between Hollywood studios and production companies, with the intent of crafting a positive image of the covert department, founded in 1947, that has overthrown dozens of regimes around the world since the 1940s and caused the death of innumerable people. Former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders once called for the agency to be abolished.
Brandon later told the Guardian that the CIA had “always been portrayed erroneously as evil and Machiavellian. It took us a long time to support projects that portray us in the light we want to be seen in.”
After 9/11, Hollywood rushed to embrace the CIA. Joel Surnow, creator of the pro-torture TV show 24, gushed to The New Yorkerin 2007 that “people in the [Bush] Administration love the series, too. It’s a patriotic show. They should love it.” The program circulated widely among US troops in Iraq and at Guantanamo Bay. Blatant propaganda, the series argued repeatedly that torture produced actionable intelligence, which has long been understood to be untrue, and which was dismissed as a lie by the landmark 2014 Senate report on torture. But it was too late, because the toxic message had already seeped into the bloodstream of the American public and US forces. Torture is now viewed by many as a legitimate tool in the arsenal of the US government. It’s why President-elect Trump can claim he may accelerate its use.
The Oscar-winning film Zero Dark Thirty had direct CIA assistance in its production and script. The central message of the movie, though, was false: that torture assisted the US in finding Osama Bin Laden. Both director Kathryn Bigelow and scriptwriter Mark Boal were given unprecedented access to CIA personnel and facilities, and they welcomed it. For the Hollywood duo, the CIA was the perfect host to strengthen their belief that the men and women of the CIA were committed to the noble pursuit of fighting terror in every corner of the globe. No matter that this “war on terror” involved many illegalities, such as extraordinary rendition, torture, black sites, and prisoner abuse. The risk of global terrorism is now far higher due to these immoral acts.
The CIA must have been pleased with the final product: Zero Dark Thirty was a huge commercial and critical success that solidified the legitimacy of the agency’s secretive work. Truth got lost on the cutting room floor.
In Finks: How the CIA Tricked The World’s Best Writers, Joel Whitney, co-founder and editor-at-large of Guernica: A Magazine of Arts and Politics, has written an essential book on a small but key part of the prehistory of this hijacking of culture: the story of how TheParis Review and other magazines from the 1950s on were funded and backed by the CIA and became a central force in pushing leading writers of the day to produce propaganda for a hungry yet unsuspecting audience. The CIA even developed a large art collection in its curious approach to cultural hegemony.
Whitney explains in his introduction that the CIA-funded Congress for Cultural Freedom, along with backing publications in Britain, India, Germany, France, and beyond, helped The Paris Review play a
“small role in the Cold War’s marshaling of culture against the Soviets […] We understand vaguely that our media are linked to our government still today, and to government’s stated foreign policy; and this understanding is enhanced by eavesdropping on The Paris Review’s bit part in this massive secret performance that drove a nation for nearly two decades, and whose hangover drives us still.”
Whitney succinctly explains how, during the Cold War, the US government was constantly worried about citizen morale and a fear that some would be attracted to the Soviet system. “Militant liberty” was the term for inserting propaganda into magazines, film scripts, and popular culture, pushing American-style values and decrying life under Communism in Central America, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia, as well as at home. The Pentagon and other government arms believed that it was possible for populations of these areas to ignore US violence if they read about the supposed glories of life in small town USA. Little has changed in the mindset of today’s propagandists, who still aim to deceive people through wartime lies.
The CIA-backed coup of Guatemala in 1954 was a classic case of misguided and criminal policy dressed up as a noble act. Whitney shows how any number of US publications were pushed to support it, despite vast evidence of its failure. A magazine called The New Leader encouraged US meddling in the country, claiming a Soviet plot to design land reforms unfavorable to US interests. The result was decades of instability and violence in the nation, culminating in the genocide of the 1980s by US-trained thug Efraín Ríos Montt.
Whitney’s writing burns with indignation at the fact that few cultural figures who worked with the CIA ever faced accountability for their actions. Like journalists on the White House drip-feed today, these writers’ work helped legitimize deluded US policies that had direct and devastating impacts on millions of people’s lives. By the late 1960s, with the United States’s antiwar movement surging and the Vietnam conflict increasingly unpopular, the antiwar press seriously challenged the establishment points of view. Money didn’t always buy success or moral superiority, and the CIA struggled to win the battle of ideas. But this resistance proved “disposable and ephemeral” as the CIA renewed its efforts in film and television.
Perhaps the strangest and most compelling of Whitney’s revelations are how the founding managing editor of The Paris Review, John Train, worked with the CIA-backed mujahideen in Afghanistan, during the 1980s, to finance a film on the war and against the Soviet presence. The author correctly argues that Train, in a small way, played a role in backing the very forces that eventually founded al-Qaeda.
“From Guatemala to Afghanistan, the American record on Cold War invasion and intervention had been a long string of failures that had to be rewritten by the propagandists. These little magazines, the television crews instrumentalized for warfare, and other secret propaganda instruments played an important role in erasing — and collectively forgetting — these mistakes.”
I think Whitney is being too kind here. These were not CIA “mistakes” but in fact crimes conducted with the full backing of the state.
Finks is a fine historical book, reviewing propaganda’s long and tortuous history in the world of art. With huge contemporary relevance, Whitney recalls what many look back on as a far more innocent media age, before the internet, and yet the effects of government-backed lies were just as deadly then as now.
Whitney urges The Paris Review and other similarly tainted magazines to honestly examine the past without fear or favor. That radical accounting of history is yet to be realized. In the age of President-elect Donald Trump and fake news, truth is an increasingly valuable commodity, agreed upon and deeply contested by nearly equal numbers of people.
Antony Loewenstein is a Jerusalem-based independent journalist, Guardian contributor, and author of many books, including his latest, Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe (Verso, 2015).
I visited Guinea-Bissau in 2015 to investigate its role as a key drug smuggling hub.
My following essay appears in the African Arguments website:
Despite being as poorly governed as Zimbabwe and Angola, and having some of the lowest social development indicators on the continent, Guinea-Bissau is one of Africa’s forgotten states. With a population of under two million people and life expectancy of just over 50 years, the tropical West African nation barely makes international headlines, seemingly destined to remain a nation with little to export except for cashews.
However, if the former Portuguese colony is known for one thing, it’s for being a central hub in the smuggling of cocaine from South America to Europe. The nation has been labelled a “narco-state” by the United Nations, with its state institutions – both government and military – known to consistently enable South American drug cartels to sell drugs across its borders.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has even claimed that Guinea-Bissau is the world’s only example of a narco-state, with one official commenting: “In Afghanistan and Colombia, individual provinces are in the hands of drug lords. Here, it’s the entire state.”
Also unlike Colombia, where chaos has helped drug cartels, it is the relative calm in Guinea-Bissau that has benefited the industry though political dysfunction is ubiquitous. Since independence in 1974, an elected leader is still yet to complete a full term, and it has now been a year since there has been a workable government in place. In 2009, President João Bernardo Vieira and an army chief-of-staff were assassinated, and since then a litany of military insurrections have cursed the nation with five separate individuals holding the top job at different times.
Guinea-Bissau’s financial state is also dire. In the words of Finance Minister Henrique Horta this June, “The economic situation of the country is catastrophic”. This has contributed to a situation in which the woefully under-paid army has often been a key conduit for smugglers, while much of the cocaine snorted in Europe will have passed through the hands of poor fishermen in Guinea-Bissau looking to make a few dollars a day.
Guinea-Bissau has few viable industries and despite the natural beauty of the Bissagos Islands, for example, tourism is minimal. Instead, drug traffickers utilise the remoteness of the islands to store and transport cocaine. On Bubaque, the main inhabited island, there are no paved roads but runways used by drug smugglers to bring in their product. In recent years, there has been a slowdown in business due to stronger policing, but previously, local men got a regular income from unloading cocaine from boats and small planes from South America.
In the hopes of encouraging economic development, the European Union and International Monetary Fund (IMF) have routinely given aid or loans. But this has instead facilitated corruption and led to a situation in which Guinea-Bissau is dependent on foreign aid for 80% of its annual budget. Even so, the IMF announced this September that it was considering giving yet more funds to a country with no functioning government.
Economically-speaking, China does seem to be looking to increase its engagement, and other countries are offering tentative support, but at it stands, the investment required to build up other industries such as tourism are simply unforthcoming.
Meanwhile, attempts to stop the nation being a drug transit point through more enforcement or legal have had mixed results. Through its Drug Enforcement Administration, for example, the US has invested huge resources. In 2014, this led to Jose Americo Bubo Na Tchuto, former head of Guinea-Bissau’s navy, pleading guilty in an American court to importing narcotics into the US. But this high-profile case had little pay-off. Na Tchuto was sentenced to only four years in prison in October this year. With time already served, he was released back to Guinea-Bissau.
A Herculean task
With so much ignorance surrounding the country, the new book Guinea-Bissau: Micro-state to Narco-State arrives at the perfect time. Edited by two academics from King’s College London – Patrick Chabal (who died in 2014) and Toby Green – the chapters examine the country’s history, politics and foreign relations. From agriculture and migration (many of its citizens flee across Africa and into Europe looking for employment opportunities) to the legacy of colonialism, Guinea-Bissau aims to highlight the rich history of one of Africa’s poorest countries.
This involves covering many difficulties facing the country, but as Green argues in his introduction, hope is not lost: “Unlike some of [its] neighbours such as Liberia, Sierra Leone and the Casamance region of Senegal, the country has not slipped into a prolonged civil war or rebellion”, he writes.
“Day-to-day life in the country remains peaceful, in contrast to the stereotyped image, and people frequently cooperate and marry across projected ‘ethnic divides’…The people have retained some autonomy and strength even through the worst passages of the political melt-down.”
Nevertheless, as the volume’s contributors explain by examining both historical and contemporary dynamics, Guinea-Bissau’s recent story is largely one of hopes dashed after independence and low expectations today.
Central to turning this around, of course, will be tackling the drug cartels, which are deeply embedded in the country’s political system. As Gambian historian Hassoum Ceesay explains: “While the narco-traffickers did not seize power, they were indeed extremely close to the centre of power; and while drugs did not run the country, traffickers took advantage of the state’s inherent weakness and exacerbated it by their presence.”
According to Ceesay, the only way to take the nation out of this morass is to reform the military, noting that without this, “it will be a Herculean task to set the country on the path of stability and growth.”
In her home on the outskirts of the capital Bissau, Dr Carmelita Pires, the former Minister of Justice, echoed this sentiment when we met in late-2015. “Until we have the capacity to organise, to establish authority, we will have drug smugglers coming to my country,” she said. “We need a consciousness uprising, to work hard.” I heard this message from people across the state, though few believed the current crop of political leaders were up to the task.
As long as global demand for drugs remains high, the illegal trade around it is all but guaranteed. And in Guinea-Bissau, weak justice systems, harsh prisons and corrupt policing can exacerbate the problem or create new ones rather than addressing the issue. Furthermore, given the flexibility of drug cartels, even if Guinea-Bissau, Guinea or Liberia were to become less favourable, other routes would grow in prominence, whether in West Africa or elsewhere.
More enlightened ideas such as decriminalising drugs in an attempt to reduce criminality and violence – as was done successfully in Portugal – currently have few supporters in Guinea-Bissau. But it may grow in popularity especially as many nations in Latin America also increasingly recognising the futility of trying to stop the drug trade through law enforcement.
As Green concludes, as long as Guinea-Bissau lacks economic and political stability, it “will continue to be seen as an ‘external threat’”. This means that ignoring the country and leaving it misunderstood should not be an option. In that sense, Guinea-Bissau: Micro-state to Narco-State marks a small but invaluable step in the right direction.
Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist, Guardian contributor and author of Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe (Verso, 2015).
Haiti is currently cleaning up from the devastating Hurricane Matthew but thankfully there are questions being asked about the viability and usefulness of foreign aid as well as the debts the poverty-stricken nation endures.
It’s a key theme in my book, Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe (out in paperback in January), as I investigate where the billions of dollars of aid money has disappeared in Haiti and which companies and corporations are turning a profit. Haiti is also a featured country in my documentary in progress, Disaster Capitalism.
A piece in The Conversation this week, by academics Jason von Meding and Giuseppe Forino, criticise the global response to the latest Haitian disaster:
Investigations have revealed that the actors of predatory capitalismrushed to secure quick and easy profits in the wake of calamity. This has helped to prevent any serious effort to address disaster risk by sidelining local stakeholders.
Under the guise of goodwill and solidarity, the United States has officially supported what journalist Antony Loewenstein calls “the latest incarnation of a tired model that failed to deliver long-lasting benefits to locals, but instead delivered cheap labour to multinationals”.
No argument for skills development and employment opportunities can really excuse abusive labour practices. In Haiti, these simply reinforced underlying vulnerability and made a mockery of the commitment to “build back better”. In reality, the United States’ interests have been protected and served in Haiti for a century.
Last December US magazine The Nation published my investigation into the resource curse in Afghanistan. I visited the war-torn country in 2015 to film my Disaster Capitalism documentary (we’re currently working on the rough cut).
I’m always glad that more, non-English speaking readers, can discover my work.
A few months ago I was interviewed on the US radio program, Writer’s Voice with Francesca Rheannon, about my book, Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe (out in paperback in January). We spoke for an hour about war, immigration, Haiti relief and people making money from misery.
There are growing moves to privatise more prisons in New South Wales, Australia despite the disastrous experiences of outsourcing prisons and detention facilities in the UK and US.
I was interviewed today by Australian current affairs show, The Wire:
Australian company Wilson Security recently announced it would withdraw from working in Australia’s offshore detention facilities from October 2017. It’s one, small positive step in the collapse of Australia’s privatised immigration network.
I was recently interviewed about this development and privatised detention on ABC Radio’s 702 Sydney with host Wendy Harmer:
I was based in South Sudan for most of 2015. It’s a country still fracturing along racial and ethnic lines. I was recently interviewed by Voice of America on its daily Africa 54 program (via Skype at Frankfurt Airport). The segment starts at 13:07. I’m described as a “South Sudanese journalist” when in fact I was merely living there last year.
My column in the Guardian:
The recently released Nauru files reveal an inventory of horrors unleashed by Australia on brown and black bodies away from public or media scrutiny. These people now have a voice, albeit in often banal descriptions of sexual abuse, rape, violence and psychological breakdown.
After more than two decades of brutalising asylum seekers on the Australian mainland and offshore, this is what Australia represents. This is who we are. These are our “values” and it’s now absurd for anybody to claim otherwise.
In 2004, I interviewed the last remaining refugee trapped on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. Aladdin Sisalem, born in Kuwait in 1979, lived on Manus Island while Australian authorities thwarted his attempts to reach the Australian mainland. “I need to belong to a country that can protect me and where I can live a normal, dignified and productive life,” he told me.
His treatment at the hands of Australia, filled with deception, obfuscation and lack of sympathy, was an ominous warning of 21st century Australian officialdom and its brutal handling of those arriving by boat while fleeing the world’s conflicts.
Sisalem was eventually allowed to settle in Australia, after an extended period of time on Manus Island, 10 months of which was alone at an exorbitant and futile cost to the Australian taxpayer. He became the last refugee to suffer in the makeshift facility during its first incarnation as an Australian refugee camp.
I often think of Sisalem’s story because so little has changed in Australia’s posture towards asylum seekers. I read over my 2004 Sydney Morning Herald online interview with him and analysis of Australia’s refugee policies, and all that’s altered are the names of ministers, prime ministers along with invisible and unaccountable immigration officials. Public opinion has ebbed and flowed in the interim, between outright hostility towards asylum seekers and far more compassion, and yet Australia now finds itself as a global leader in new and innovative ways to punish powerless people.
The recent report by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch about Australia deliberately ignoring abuses on the Pacific island of Nauru, where hundreds of men, women and children live in unsafe, indefinite detention, received large global coverage. It contributes to radically shifting the international image still enjoyed by Australia; a sleepy nation with beautiful beaches and welcoming smiles. It’s a cliché still believed by countless people I have met when working in Palestine, Honduras, Africa and the United States.
I’m now constantly asked why Australia, an island state, needs to further traumatise refugees fleeing Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. Instead of being a global pariah for this behaviour, Canberra is increasingly admired and envied by European countries desperately trying to keep out Muslims from the Middle East and Africa. The Nauru files prove that privatised security is willing to use violence, intimidation and mockery to quash adult and child complaints.
It’s not just the ways in which asylum seekers are isolated that brings admiration for Australia globally but outsourcing the tasks of imprisonment to failing private companies. Australia began this process in the 1990s, an early adopter, and now countless European states are enthusiastically mimicking the trend. Militarising borders has never been so profitable.
A new report by Dutch NGOs Stop Wapenhandel and Transnational Institute, Border Wars, outlines the defence firms selling weapons to Middle Eastern dictatorships and the US as well as equipment to European governments desperate to build walls and surveillance networks to monitor and stop new arrivals. The same multinationals are selling weapons that fuel the wars and helping Europe keep out its victims. The almost weekly terror attacks in Europe are empowering this business model and it will only get worse.
The prospects for Australia’s immigration stance to change is slim. The new Senate features Islam-fearing politicians unlikely to show any interest or sympathy for Muslim refugees stranded on Manus Island or Nauru. Surging support in Europe for anti-refugee policies, along with Donald Trump’s remarkably successful insurgent campaign against Muslims, foreigners and Mexicans, shows that large numbers of the public in Western democracies want to massively slow down, if not stop, immigration. Civilians caught in the middle of wars in the Middle East and Africa will just have to suffer in silence.
There’s a lesson in this for Australia and it’s not pretty. Australia was well ahead of the global curve in its treatment of asylum seekers and rather than being a pariah, as I argued in 2014 when calling for sanctions against Canberra, it’s become an inspiration.
But not for all. In 2014, Tasmanian MP Andrew Wilkie wrote to the International Criminal Court asking the body to investigate Australia’s mistreatment of refugees. The Refugee Action Collective Victoria followed suit in 2015. Could enterprising lawyers pursue any number of other international legal bodies and hold successive Australian politicians and officials to account (ideally legally but also morally)?
In an age where prosecuting Tony Blair and George W. Bush for war crimes in Iraq is now plausible, why not include Australian prime ministers John Howard, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull for crimes against humanity for their detention regime? It’s far-fetched but not impossible. A citizen’s arrest of any of these individuals would be a great start.
Tourism Australia will soon need to design new advertisements to attract white, anti-immigration activists from around the world. These people will find a receptive audience when arriving by plane, perhaps less so by boat.