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Rick Perlstein

Rick Perlstein

Where the past isn’t even past.

NSA Reform, Then and Now

NSA campus

Outside of the NSA campus in Fort Meade, Maryland. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

So now comes President Obama, proposing “reforms” for the National Security Agency. Kevin Drum of Mother Jones summarizes them as “weak tea.” Obama is responding, of course, to the advisory panel he appointed that released its recommendations about a month ago—which Drum has described as slightly-less-weak tea. Though even that report—for instance, the conclusion that the current system of storing bulk metadata “creates potential risks to public trust, personal privacy, and civil liberty,” and that “Americans must never make the mistake of wholly ‘trusting’ our public officials”—must have been pretty damned humiliating to President Obama, who has consistently preached to us we have nothing to fear from trusting our public officials at all.

Me being, well, me, when the Obama panel released its recommendations about month ago, I immediately thought to pull down from my shelf the Church Committee’s final report from 1976 on spying on Americans to see how its thirty-six page section about the NSA’s abuses of power, and the government’s investigation of them forty-seven years ago, compares to what we’re seeing today. It certainly makes for an interesting study.

I’ve written before about how an investigation of the NSA ended up being tacked onto the Church Committee’s probe of the CIA and FBI. The most interesting takeaway for our own moment is that the investigation was quite nearly accidental. It was then fought tooth and nail by an intelligence agency that insisted that merely being called to explain itself before Congress would invite catastrophe; and then, when its principals were finally compelled to testify, defended their questionable activities with unfalsifiable boasts like, in the words of then-NSA chief General Lewis Allen, “We are aware that a major terrorist attack was prevented” by the activities under question.

Sound familiar? So what did we learn then, and what have we forgotten about what we learned then, now?

The basic problem, the Church Committee explained, was that “NSA has intercepted and disseminated international communications of American citizens whose privacy ought to be protected under our constitution.” Most dramatically, the congressional investigators discovered—again, almost accidentally—that the NSA had carried out a government program, begun in 1945 (seven years before the NSA was invented and then subsumed under its management), that collected at the end of every work day every single wire sent to or from a foreign country by the three telegram corporations. Practically no one knew about “Operation SHAMROCK”—not even the top executives of the companies. “No witness from the telegraph companies recalled that there had ever been a review of the arrangements at the executive levels of their respective companies,” the document reads.

In one eye-popping passage, the Church investigators write of how, in 1968, a vice president of the telegraph company Western Union “discovered the existence of NSA’s Recordak (microfilm) machine in the Western Union transmission room. The machine was reported to the company president, who directed his employees to find out to whom the machine belonged and what the basis for the arrangement was.”

The basis was meetings between the Secretary of Defense James Forrestal and the companies in 1945 and again in 1947, when the executives agreed upon the program once they were assured by Attorney General Tom Clark they would not suffer criminal liability for participating. The courier, though, who lied that he was from the Department of Defense, said he didn’t know what the basis was, or what was done with the material. The story concludes blandly, “The documents do not reflect whether the machine was removed.”

Wild stuff, right?

What was done with these telegrams was a dragnet—a technologically primitive version of what goes on with “telephonic metadata” now. Then as now, the investigators acknowledged that protecting the secrets of “NSA’s vast technological capability,” if placed under proper supervision, “is a sensitive national asset which ought to be zealously protected for its value to our common defense”—but that “this same technological capability could be turned against the American people, at great cost to liberty.” And then as now, the spooks said if any innocent Americans had their communications spied on, it was only an accident, incidental to the noble work of spying on the bad guys. The Church Committee thundered back, “To those Americans who have had their communications sent with the exception that they were private intentionally intercepted and disseminated by their government, the knowledge that NSA did not monitor specific communications channels solely to acquire their messages is of little comfort.”

And in a related program, carried out between 1967 (when Lyndon Johnson became convinced that antiwar activity just had to be directed by our enemies abroad) and 1973, the NSA received “watch lists” from the FBI, CIA, Bureau of Narcotics, Secret Service and Department of Defense that included “[l]ists of names and phrases, including the names of individuals and groups.” There were 1,200 names in total, with most of the groups “nonviolent and peaceful in nature.” Again, the NSA attempted to drag evidence of foreign influence on dissident activity and civil disturbances out of the various sorts of communications they intercepted. The 1967 riots, and the intensification of antiwar demonstrations, was that era’s 9/11: “A senior NSA official…testified that such a request for information on civil disturbances or political activities was ‘unprecedented’…. It is kind of a landmark in my memory; it stands out as a first.” All told, 2,000 reports were disseminated to other agencies by the friendly NSA, an estimated 10 percent “derived from communications between two American citizens.” But, concluded the Church Committee, “No evidence was found, however, of any significant foreign support or control of domestic dissidents…most…involved rallies and demonstrations that were public knowledge.” Just like President Obama’s panel says they found no evidence that “telephonic metadata” stopped any terrorists plots now.

And, of course, this stuff was carried out with pathological secrecy—in order to protect operational viability, I’m sure the spies reassured one other, but probably as much to hide the serial failures. Who knew if they were breaking the law? Or, as the Church investigators archly asserted, it was “not due to the nature of the communications intercepted (most were personal and innocuous) but to the fact that American citizens were involved.” Communications between two Americans “were classified Top Secret, prepared with no mention of NSA as the source, and disseminated ‘For Background Use Only.’ No serial number was assigned to them, and they were not filed with regular communications intelligence intercepts.”

And as is so often the case, sins begun under Johnson metastasized under Nixon: beginning in July of 1969, all NSA “watch list” information was handled that way.

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Another parallel was the poor caliber of excuses once the sins were exposed. Dave Eggers has characterized what the national security priests are saying now: “First of all, we’re searching everyone’s home, so you’re not being singled out…. All we’re doing is searching every home in the United States, every day, without exception, and if we find something noteworthy, we’ll let you know.” The fact that they were running a dragnet was the excuse. And it’s one they’ve apparently been keeping around in the files, waiting for the right moment to spring it once more. As FBI director Clarence Kelley (a top customer of NSA intercepts) “explained” back then, in a memo to the Justice Department in September of 1973:

“We do not believe that the NSA actually participated in any electronic surveillance, [sic] per se of the defendants for any other agency of the government, since under the procedures used by that agency they are unaware of the identity of any group or individual which might be included in the recovery of national security intelligence information.”

(The Church investigators had something to say about that: “This position is difficult to defend since intelligence agencies, including the FBI, submitted specific American names for watch lists which resulted in the interception of Americans’ international communications.”)

So the excuses were similar. But there’s a difference, and it’s a doozy. It suggests the title of a book John Dean wrote years back about the abuses of the Bush administration, Worse than Watergate: what we have today is worse than Nixon, too. For within days of that 1973 memo, the head of the criminal division of Nixon’s Justice Department decided this all was of questionable legality and recommended that “the FBI and Secret Service cease and desist requesting NSA to disseminate to them information concerning individuals and organizations obtained through NSA electronic coverage and that NSA should be informed not to disclose voluntarily such information…unless NSA has picked up the information on its own initiative in pursuit of its foreign intelligence mission.”

In other words, the responsible officials stopped the dragnet of their own accord, policing itself. They didn’t, as under Obama, circle the wagons, wave their arms, and keep on keepin’ on, Constitution be damned. Those were the days. Now, we’re worse off than we were under Nixon—and the responsible officials seem to prefer making up snuff porn about Edward Snowden.

Read Next: Steven Hsieh provides the full transcript of Obama’s NSA speech.

Chicago School: Bill de Blasio’s Shock Doctrine Consultants

Mayors Rahm Emanuel and Bill de Blasio (Reuters/AP)

Bill de Blasio was swept to the New York mayoralty on the promise of getting Gracie Mansion out from under the thumb of corporate elites. So how worried should you be that he listened to Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel and is now getting advice on his transition from Emanuel’s corporate consultants.

The story first broke three weeks ago in the web publication Capital New York. “De Blasio’s Shadow Transition” cited an unnamed source (I know who the source is, and can vouch for his trustworthiness) who said that following a November meeting between de Blasio and Emanuel, the nonprofit group Civic Consulting USA “has ‘embedded’ into the process a team drawn up from the ‘creme de la creme of big New York consultants.’ This group has shaped the process by organizing the original transition team into a number of topic-specific committees and then bringing in an even greater number of other people onto those committees to participate in the search for future administration members.” Civic Consulting USA is an offshoot of a Chicago group, the Civic Consulting Alliance, which provides opportunities for corporate executives to do pro bono work on municipal affairs. And in Chicago, where CCA was also instrumental in staffing Emanuel’s transition, their record has been creepy.

Regular readers of my work for The Nation are familiar with my reporting on how Mayor Emanuel rammed through the nation’s largest school closing. Because the move so plainly defied common sense, democratic procedure, empirical honesty, racial and class equity, safety and sound educational policy (see my reporting here, here, here, and here), the plutocrat-heavy school board Rahm personally appointed faced the problem of how to sell it. That’s where the Civic Consulting Alliance came in—and also the Walton Family Foundation, the right-wing group controlled by the family that owns Wal-Mart, who are rather gung-ho to close public schools in order to turn them over to charter school operators.

According to the outstanding Chicago-based independent schools publication Catalyst, that sales job

is being underwritten by the Walton Family Foundation (a foundation run by the founders of Wal-Mart). The Walton Foundation has fueled the expansion of charter schools across the country and, in January, announced that CPS was the largest recipient of charter school grants in the country.

The Walton Foundation agreed in November to provide CPS with a grant for the community engagement process around the “utilization crisis,” according to the CPS communications office. The foundation lists a $478,000 grant to the Children First Foundation, a not-for-profit set up by CPS…

The district had not budgeted for a “rigorous community engagement effort” and therefore needed to reach out for funding, notes spokeswoman Becky Carroll. CPS is using the grant to pay for the “independent facilitators” from the Loran Marketing Group, which is running the breakout sessions at the community meetings.

The content of these breakout sessions is not clear. CPS has banned the media from attending them.

The School Utilization Commission that is advising the district on closings is staffed by the Civic Consulting Alliance, a not-for-profit that does business consulting for city government. The Civic Consulting Alliance is housed in the same office as New Schools for Chicago, an organization that funds and advocates for charter schools. New Schools for Chicago also received a $220,000 Walton Family Foundation Grant….At community meetings that have already taken place, attendees have repeatedly accused CPS officials of wanting to close schools in order to make way for charter schools.

Now, the Civic Consulting Alliance is is not all bad, their work not inherently controversial; this piece by a CCA fan boasts how it corralled free labor to help “redesign workflow for the police department that resulted in the equivalent of adding dozens of officers to the force.” And in this piece Cook County Board president Toni Preckwinkle, a genuine progressive (who would make a great mayor; run, Toni, run!) hosannas CCA for helping “county agencies to establish county-wide goals and metrics in areas such as public safety and economic development.” Hurray!

But in America, policy preferences are deeply divided by class. A study by political scientists Benjamin Page, Larry Bartels and Jason Seewright, for instance, found that 68 percent of the general public believed “the government in Washington ought to see to it that everyone who wants to work can find a job,” versus 19 percent of the wealthy. That is why any arrangement that gives the rich special entry into the halls of government cannot be a merely technocratic act. And when you consider the kind of plutocrats helping run the Civic Consulting Alliance in Chicago, the problem looks even worse. Consider a fellow named Ty Fahner, who sits on CCA’s board. Consider it, and prepare to be shocked.

Recall the basics of Naomi Klein’s “shock doctrine” idea: because hollowing out the state in is not popular, elites have to manufacture crises in order to get it done. Now listen to Ty Fahner. Fahner is a former Republican attorney general of Illinois and president of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago—basically the star chamber for executives at Chicago’s biggest employers. He spoke last summer to a meeting at the tony Union League Club on the “urgent need” to cut the pensions of government employees. His presentation was broadcast on C-Span. At forty-six and a half minutes into the presentation, an unidentified audience member, apparently an executive at Kellogg, said:

Maybe sometimes you gotta be irresponsible to be responsible. If a political solution really doesn’t produce a favorable outcome, maybe you really need a market solution. And a market solution, I don’t mean bankruptcy, I mean actually talking down the state rating even further so the state’s bonds essentially become below investment grade. And it drives up the borrowing cost to the state and all of us to a significant level enough that you really feel the public pressure. I mean, that’s somewhat irresponsible…but there has to be a market pressure that is overwhelming.

To translate: Why don’t people like Fahner use their influence with bond rating agencies to try to make it harder for the State of Illinois to borrow money?

Here’s how Fahner replied:

The Civic Committee, not me, but me and some of the people that make up the Civic Committee, some of the same names I mentioned before, did meet with and call—in one case in person—and a couple of calls to Moody’s and Fitch and Standard & Poors, and say “How in the hell can you guys do this? You are an enabler to let the state continue. You keep threatening more and more and more.”

And I think now we’ve backed off. We don’t want to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. But if you watch what happened over the last few years, it’s been steadily down. Before that, it’s been the blind eye…we’ve done all we can do on that…we’re trying to work the political process…rattle the sabers and call everyone and tell them.

Again, translating: “We” already tried that. Then we stopped. Not because it was unethical, or undemocratic. But because we wanted plausible deniability if anyone (correctly) accused us of sabotaging the full faith and credit of Illinois government. And, hey! It worked.
(Subsequently Fahner claimed he “misspoke” and that nothing of the sort ever went down. Apparently he got the message that you didn’t admit to stuff like this in public.)

Now, I’ve found no evidence Fahner himself is involved with Civic Consulting USA—just the original Chicago version, CCA, from which CCUSA sprung. The bottom line here are the questions. The ties between the original and the spinoff are close; CCA provided CCUSA’s CEO, who is still listed as a CCA principal. Fahner is still on CCA’s board. Here is CCUSA’s board. Is there a Ty Fahner–style shock-doctrineer among them? And why couldn’t de Blasio staff up City Hall without messing around with people the Walton Foundation trusts enough to grant half a million dollars? Gracie Mansion: let’s hear what you have to say. With friends like these, the danger is that Bill de Blasio’s revolution might end before it has chance to begin.

Did ‘The New Republic’ Take Money From a Drone Manufacturer That Wanted It to Run Defenses of Drones?

Northrop Grumman

Northrop Grumman's X-47B long-range, high endurance unmanned aircraft (Aviation Week)

On Friday I posted a short piece in which I said that (1) Benjamin Wittes, co-director of the Harvard Law School–Brookings Project on Law and Security, has been blogging at his website Lawfare “on the report on the abuses of the National Security Agency just out from the President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communication Technologies, in terms highly favorable to the super-secretive and media-shy agency”; (2) that The New Republic’s website republishes his posts and others from the Lawfare group blog in a project titled “Security States” that is sponsored by Northrop Grumman, a major NSA contractor; and (3) that Wittes and his colleagues enjoy extraordinary access to the NSA, as suggested by a series of interviews they’ve published on the site with top NSA officials. I drew a connection between all of these things. Then I sent the post to TNR’s editor Franklin Foer and to Wittes, promising to publish their responses. What I learned was that the problem isn’t as bad as I originally described. In fact, it’s worse.

* * *

Here is what Franklin Foer, who is an old friend (I hired him for his first journalism internship) wrote back to me:

We’ve been running pieces from Lawfare for many months—and we’ve been running pieces by Ben and Jack for many years. They are valued contributors, sharp minds, genuine experts, and ideologically unpredictable. (Jeff Rosen, another treasured contributor and our legal affairs editor, has long been one of the most important critics of the surveillance state.) When our collaboration with Lawfare was sponsored by Northrop—which was just the month of October—it was clearly disclosed on each article page.

I spent Monday researching Foer’s claim of full disclosure of Northrop Grumman’s sponsorship. Let’s not bury the lede here: what Foer said does not seem to be true.

An announcement of the new collaboration between TNR and Lawfare on September 30, 2013, at Lawfareblog.com (“Coming Tomorrow: Teaming Up With The New Republic”) stated, “We are calling the project, which is being sponsored by the Northrop Grumman Corp, ‘Security States.’ ” An announcement under Wittes’s byline at NewRepublic.com on October 1 says nothing about any sponsorship, and a third announcement, a press release on the same day at NewRepublic.com, concluded, “This partnership is made possible by Northrop Grumman, a leading global security company.” That is the only mention of Northrop Grumman sponsorship of TNR content I can find on its website—ever. Going through each online page with posts tagged as part of the “Security States” series in October, I find that the sponsorship was not “clearly disclosed on each article page.” As this forlorn little Googlewhack reveals, it was in fact revealed on none of them.

I sought clarification from Foer: Did I misinterpret his response? He wrote back, “Northrop doesn’t advertise with us on our site now. That was a month-long deal that ended.” I took him to be saying, perhaps, that the posts published under the “Security States” tag during the period of sponsorship mentioned the sponsorship, but only while that sponsorship was ongoing. However, using the Internet Wayback Machine, I checked for how a post made on October 17 showed up the next day, on October 18—and could find no indication of sponsorship there, either. I followed up by asking Foer about that, too. He replied, “”Northrop was an advertiser. They were promised nothing, other than prominent placement on Security States pages.”

He had appended to his original response “what I hope would be obvious: Nobody from our staff or Lawfare ever had any contact with this specific advertiser; and advertisers never have any say in what we produce.” That’s fine. I don’t doubt him. But to summarize, there was no way to know the arrangement had ended; so Wittes is off-base for knocking me for not knowing the arrangement had ended. Indeed there seems to have been no way, really, for most of The New Republic’s readers to know it ever began. Trusting New Republic readers consumed prose sponsored by Northrop Grumman, concerning issues in which Northrop Grumman had a direct financial interest, without being aware of the fact. I’ll have more to say about that below—because the stuff about the NSA is only the beginning of the problem. The drones are the bigger issue.

* * *

First, listen to Benjamin Wittes:

My response is that this is really goofy for someone of your very considerable talents—and that it would have been worth checking with someone who knows something this subject before writing it up, rather than after.

The Northrup [sic] sponsorship was for one month only—the month of October. Not a dime of the money from that sponsorship has been paid to Jack [Goldsmith, about which below] or anyone else for writing for Lawfare, Lawfare being a tiny non-profit that does not pay its writers. What’s more, our content-sharing arrangement with the New Republic, in any event, has nothing whatsoever to do with the “Inside NSA” podcast series, which developed—as we made very clear on the site—out of dialogues Bobby Chesney has been organizing between the agency and academics.

On a more personal note, I might add that our characterization of me as ‘blogging on the report on the abuses of the National Security Agency…in terms highly favorable to the super-secretive and media-shy agency’ is simply indefensible. I have written exactly one post on the subject, and it contains no evaluation on the merits of the review group findings at all, merely the political observation that the report is very awkward for the administration.

You got one thing right though. I am, in fact, not a lawyer.

Wittes subsequently wrote me, and wrote a post elaborating further, that Northrop Grumman “had no oversight over content with respect to Security States and was not promised pieces on drones or NSA matters either.”

It’s odd. Soon after my post, Wittes blogged that the Lawfare/TNR partnership no longer had “active sponsorship from Northrop, though I sincerely wish we did and look forward to working with them (or other companies) in the future.” Yes, that’s right: his defense against the accusation of taking money from a defense contractor while producing journalism that specifically impacts that defense contractor was to publicly solicit more money from more defense contractors. Lawfare is published by a nonprofit, the Lawfare Institute. It is read by a few thousand people, among them the most powerful decision-makers in the Washington, DC, firmament. It leans right. It likes drones and the NSA. It is also full of smart analysis, valuable analysis, that nonetheless becomes the less valuable the more doubts persist about the independence of its publishers. So who are its funders? Indeed, why does it need funders? Publishing a blog doesn’t cost a penny.

But Lawfare solicits sponsors nonetheless. And maybe a super-human being would be able to do that without the temptation to self-censor—without refraining from publishing the sort of content that would make that stated priority difficult. But unless you believe Benjamin Wittes is a super-human being, it’s hard take Lawfare seriously as an impartial source of analysis. Writing bad things about the sponsor’s products is bad for business; that’s why serious publications maintain a rigid wall between ad sales and editorial—and don’t try to sell sponsorship in the very pieces in which they defense their editorial independence!

Consider, too, what with Wittes describing his outfit as a tiny nonprofit: these guys are not just some random dudes blogging out their idle thoughts out into the Internet ether. According to a feature in CQ Weekly this past spring, “When the House Judiciary Committee summoned experts in February to testify about the legality of drone strikes on U.S. citizens, all of them came from one blog: Lawfare. And when California Democratic Rep. Adam B. Schiff wanted to draft legislation creating a court to oversee such strikes, he consulted with one of the founders of Lawfare, Jack Goldsmith. It’s a common phone call from Capitol Hill to experts who write for the blog.”

A tiny nonprofit? Sure, why not. But here’s another fascinating detail in the CQ piece: the site gets only 2,000 to 3,000 visits a day, but “[a]mong the top six cities reading Lawfare in 2013 are Washington; Arlington, Va.; and McLean, Va., the latter two the neighborhoods of the Pentagon and the CIA.” (I wonder if traffic of late has increased from Laurel, Maryland, the site of the NSA’s Ford Meade headquarters.) The writers may not get paid. But they certainly earn plenty of political capital from the association—specifically with the national security state’s reigning right-leaning powers that be.

The CQ Weekly piece cites Andrew Prasow, senior counterterrorism counsel at Human Rights Watch, who “criticizes Lawfare for its authors’ frequent defenses of surviving elements of Bush’s anti-terrorism policies.” The joint Lawfare/TNR project also, it’s true, publish great stuff that does not—even left-leaning stuff. For instance, there’s this outstanding five-part series on why corporations should be liable for design flaws in their software that make customers vulnerable to cybersecurity breaches. But (concern-troll alert) good dissenting writers won’t publish stuff there for long if their editors keep squandering credibility by selling themselves to the highest defense-contractor bidder.

For guess what else Security States publishes? A piece, during that golden month underwritten by Northrop Grumman, headlined “Armed Robots: Banning Autonomous Weapons Systems Isn’t the Answer.” In it, authors Matthew Waxman and Kenneth Anderson, two members of the right-wing Hoover Institution Task Force on National Security and Law, argue that armed drones “programmed under certain circumstances to select and fire at some targets entirely on their own” are “not inherently unethical and unlawful, and they can be made to serve the ends of law on the battlefield…through existing normative framework,” and that to “preemptively ban the development and use of autonomous weapons systems” would be “unnecessary and dangerous.”

Now, for all I know, they have a point. (It sounds nuts to me, but hey, I’m not the expert.) And I’m sure these cats are sincere in their belief. But I’d still trust them more if the conclusions weren’t so, um, salubrious to a certain corporate sponsor. For a global ban on drones that deal death via artificial intelligence algorithms would be pretty damned inconvenient for a company racing to complete something called the X-47B, “also known as as the Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstrator (UCAS-D),” according to the breathless prose of the tech site CNet this past month. The X-47B, CNet continues, “has put a gleam in the Pentagon’s eye about someday equipping carrier strike forces with autonomous aircraft.”

That would be very sort of aircraft that Lawfare/TNR says don’t need no stinking regulation.

Northrop is drone central. Ran a Fortune web headline from last week: “How Northrop Grumman Is Winning the Military’s Super-Stealth Drone Race: Northrop Grumman signs yet another major drone contract from the DoD.” And, from NextGov from a few months back: “Northrop Grumman and Carter Aviation Technologies have been hired for a $9 million effort to conceptualize an armed drone that will launch from a small ship to strike as far as 900 nautical miles away.”

Wittes drone-defense central—a leading advocate of drone warfare as “ethical and effective.”

Maybe that’s why Grumman found him worthy of their sponsorship.

In any event, in October, under that sponsorship, we find Wittes criticizing an Amnesty International report on drones.

At this point, let me cop to it. It was wrong of me to write piece titled, “Why Is &lsdquo;The New Republic’ Taking Money From an NSA Contractor to Run Defenses of the NSA?” That was unfair. Much more accurate would have been to write, “Did &lsdquo;The New Republic’ Take Money From a Drone Manufacturer that Wanted It To Run Defenses of Drones?”

The timing was certainly auspicious: last autumn was precisely when Northrop Grumman would want Lawfare’s small but influential band of readers to be thinking warm thoughts about its drone program—especially the ones on congressional staffs. Another of their unmanned planes, the Global Hawk, was slated by the Pentagon for termination in January of 2012. According to an AllGov.com report, “The Air Force determined that Global Hawk cost too much and was too limited in its ability to fly during stormy weather, among other reasons for killing the drone.” (Originally budgeted at $35 million each, each plane will now cost an estimated $220 million.) Then Northrop “made it rain on Congress to the tune of $31 million in lobbying spending since the beginning of 2012, and in return Congress has passed legislation ordering the Air Force to purchase the arms maker’s RQ-4 Global Hawk.”

There is no evidence here of causation here, or collusion—just the appearance of impropriety. But Wittes doesn’t believe in the appearance of impropriety, does he? “I sincerely wish we did and look forward to working with them (or other companies) in the future.” What kind of serious scholar says that???

* * *

Now, as to issue (2), the podcast series with NSA principals, which Wittes says I misidentified as part of the joint project with TNR. I didn’t. I just said the podcasts prove he “enjoys extraordinary access to the NSA.” Which he and his colleagues indisputably do. He retorts that their podcasts were just something that “developed—as we made very clear on our site—out of dialogues Bobby Chesney [one of his blogging partners] has been organizing between the agency and academics.” And that all sounds very kumbaya, but I’m not sure this makes a point any different than the one I did. The NSA chooses the kind of scholars they can prefer to dialogue with. They are people who write like… Ben Wittes.

Wittes wrote to me that, to bring us to issue (3) characterizing him as “blogging on the report on the abuses of the National Security Agency…in terms highly favorable to the super-secretive and media-shy agency’ is simply indefensible. I have written exactly one post on the subject, and it contains no evaluation on the merits of the review group findings at all, merely the political observation that the report is very awkward for the administration.” And, yes, it’s true he’s only done one post on the new panel’s review, which, after all, had only been out a few days when I wrote. And he’s right: what I wrote was a stone mistake. The post I linked to was indeed neutral concerning the report, merely making the (correct, useful) point about its political awkwardness to the president. It turns out I confused that post with another one by Wittes that was highly favorable to the NSA.

The subject was Judge Richard Leon’s opinion calling bulk metadata collection by the NSA under Section 215 of the Patriot Act unconstitutional. In it Wittes calls metadata collection “a major intelligence program that administrations of both parties have insisted represents a crucial line of defense against terrorism.” He thinks this, though the panel appointed by Obama would soon announce pretty authoritatively that this just wasn’t so. That—to quote—“the information contributed to terrorist investigations by the use of section 215 telephony meta-data was not essential to preventing attacks.” Now, NSA chief General Keith Alexander and others have, it is true, bamboozled “administrations of both parties” into accepting this claim. But as has been understood for a while now, General Alexander is a liar. But apparently Ben Wittes trusts him. Which is precisely my point. People who publicly profess trust in the NSA and disparage its critics—another Lawfare post describes the new review as “sloganeering” and “scandalously slender” and calls its recommendations “extreme”—are more likely to get close to the NSA, and enjoy the favor of its contractors.

So: wrong post, right conclusion. Lawfare is largely a pro-NSA blog. And a pro-drones-that-shoot-missiles-from-the-sky-without-human-intervention blog. Which may be why Northrop Grumman likes it so much, and why it likes TNR for partnering with it.

* * *

This is getting long. But stick with me. For the next part just gets more embarrassing for our hapless interlocutor.

 

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Turn first, though, to issue (4) in Wittes’s response. When he notes that Jack Goldsmith wasn’t paid for his posts, he’s referring to these words from me: “Let’s hear from Professor Goldsmith as to whether he is paid by Northrop for his posts at Lawfare, and whether he thinks he has disclosed that to his Harvard employers, and whether he should make the arrangement public.

Here was Goldsmith’s response:

Dear Rick

You write such great books—surely you have better uses of your time.

I have not disclosed any conflict of interest for writing on Lawfare because I do not have one to disclose. I am not (and have never been) paid by anyone for my posts at Lawfare.

What is your next book about? I loved the last two.

Glad for the compliment, professor, and for the clarification. I accept it, while adding that I still would like to ask you, and Wittes, the fundamentally question: Why do you think it’s appropriate to solicit money for a journalistic project from a party that has a such a direct financial interest in that project? And I’d add that, Professor, you’re wrong: this has been a far better use of my time than I ever dared dream. My favorite part was learning that one of the national security state’s most respected intellectual mandarins on questions of technology and security doesn’t understand how websites work.

Check this out. Among his tweets on my short little piece, Wittes offered the following piece of text, presented as a smoking gun: “Turns out The Nation isn’t above putting advertising from defense contractors on the front page that blasts us for it. pic.twitter.com/f400Js8Zjx.” It presents a screenshot of TheNation.com with an ad for United Technologies tucked on the right side.

Oy.

TheNation.com, like most online magazine sites, sells part of its advertising space to digital ad networks like Google AdSense who in turn auction it to their own, third-party clients. These ads then show up on users’ computers according to algorithms based on their own web usage. The fact that a defense contractor showed up on Ben Wittes’s computer screen simply means that… defense contractors frequently show up on Ben Wittes’s computer screen. Which I guess in the end sort of proves my point.

Read Next: What should the media learn from Edward Snowden?

Why Is ‘The New Republic’ Taking Money From an NSA Contractor to Run Defenses of the NSA?

Northrop Grumman

The landing gear on a mockup of a Northrop Grumman X-47B long-range, high endurance unmanned aircraft (Reuters).

The National Security Agency has a friend at the Harvard Law School. And at the Brookings Institution. And at The New Republic. And at The Washington Post.

Benjamin Wittes, who is not a lawyer, is a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, where he is “Research Director in Public Law, and Co-Director of the Harvard Law School-Brookings Project on Law and Security.” He also has a Web site, Lawfare, where he’s been blogging on the report on the abuses of the National Security Agency just out from the President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communication Technologies, in terms highly favorable to the super-secretive and media-shy agency. He also enjoys extraordinary access to the NSA, for instance in this series of podcasts with its top officials. (“We Brought In a Recoding Device So You Don’t Have To,” the series is titled—cute!)

Why is Lawfare the NSA’s media portal of choice? Well, consider this. Lawfare, in turn, partners with The New Republic, where this post was republished in its entirety. The joint Lawfare/TNR project is titled “Security States,” and it is sponsored, Wittes proudly notes, by the Northrop Grumman Corporation. Grumman, in turn, is a major NSA contractor—see this $220 million deal it scored with the NSA “to develop an advanced information management and data storage system that will support efforts to modernize the nation’s electronic intelligence and broader signals intelligence capabilities,” a fact TNR does not disclose to its readers.

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And the NSA is apparently well-pleased with the arrangement. “Check out Lawfare’s interview with NSA’s acting Deputy Director Fran Fleisch,” the agency enthused today, one of the NSA’s public affairs office’s six breathless tweets booming “Lawfare” over the past five days. Surely they also enjoy the laundering of the content of “the indispensable Lawfare blog” through The Washington Post, courtesy of its hack right-wing blogger Jennifer Rubin. (“The NSA will falter unless Obama does his job.”)

Meanwhile, Wittes’s Lawfare co-blogger Jack Goldsmith, late of George W. Bush’s Pentagon and Justice Department, is a professor at the Harvard Law School, but does not disclose any conflict of interest, as most Harvard Law professors do, for being part of such a project sponsored by a commercial entity.

Let’s hear from Professor Goldsmith as to whether he is paid by Northrop for his posts at Lawfare, and whether he thinks he has disclosed that to his Harvard employers, and whether he should make the arrangement public. Let’s hear from The New Republic. Why is it taking money from an NSA contractor to run defenses of the NSA? I’ll be sending this post straightaway to TNR editor Franklin Foer, an old friend. And I’ll e-mail it too Professor Goldsmith, too. I’ll let you know what they say.

Read Next: What should the media learn from Edward Snowden?

The Municipal-Industrial Complex Around the World

Chicago Transit Authority (AP Photos)

The serial failures of Chicago’s new “smart card” public transportation fare collection system isn’t really a Chicago story—any more than the dark, satanic mills of nineteenth-century England were a Manchester story, or impoverished temp workers risking life and limb packaging iPads is a story about California’s Inland Empire. This is a tale about the world taking shape before us now, everywhere: public provision being turned over to private interests, subverting democracy and all economic good sense in the (terrible) bargain.

RFID fare-collection systems implemented by the San Diego–based defense contractor Cubic have caused public outcry wherever they’ve been introduced, across all four corners of the globe. London is Cubic’s biggest customer, accounting for 33 percent of their transportation business. There, “Oyster” smart cards were introduced in 2003 via what is known in England as a Private Finance Initiative. The parties were a consortium including Cubic and EDS (formerly Electronic Data Systems, a subsidiary of Hewlett-Packard), and London’s transport agency TfL; the seventeen-year contract, signed in 1998, was worth £1.1 billion. The system began with a modest range of features and slowly expanded; but according to Wikipedia, in “August 2008, TfL decided to exercise a break option in the contract to terminate it in 2010, five years early, this followed a number of technical failures.” And yet a subsequent contract with Cubic lasting through 2015 was inked nonetheless.

And the failures went on.

There were 190,0000 complaints about overcharging in 2008 (only 46 percent of complainants had their money refunded)—with the pace accelerating month by month. In 2010, with Londoners still baffled by a confusing system that required them to “tap out” their cards upon leaving a station lest they get hit by the maximum fare, TfL responded by blaming the customers. The next year, the maximum fare was increased; overcharges thus added £61.8 million to the consortium’s coffers. This year, a transportation watchdog group reported that of the Oyster machines “almost no one they interviewed understood how they worked.” The Guardian reported that authorities knew the system was overcharging some users. The paper continued, “Transport for London (TfL) has been made aware of the glitch but is not going to fix it until September at the earliest—because it only updates the Oyster system three times a year.” One of the most embarrassing problems in Chicago—machines charging the wrong customer card—is rampant in London, according to a report in the excellent local Chicago news site Gapers Block. Another system glitch reported by Gapers Block was that vendors were able to receive money from customers, then void the transaction and still keep the cash. Meanwhile customers are owed some £53 million in unclaimed refunds; but there is “no easy way to reclaim the funds.”

The system is up for rebid in 2015. Trouble for Cubic stockholders, right? Not so much. Observed a Credit Suisse equity report, “it is a longstanding relationship that is likely to be renewed.” Nice work if you can get it.

You could enjoy a nice around-the-world tour just traveling to cities where Cubic has screwed up fare collection. Gapers Block documented them: double-charging in Atlanta. Twenty-fold charging in Brisbane, Australia. Miami-Dade’s “Easy Card” system was dubbed “Easy Fraud”: this fall, “a 22-year-old man has stood trial over a a glitch allowing him (and members of a WSVN Channel 7 News team) to load money onto Easy Cards for free.” In San Francisco, “Cubic disclosed it received 38,000 customer service phone calls in August 2011.”

And then Los Angeles: in spite of “nearly consistent one-star reviews on Yelp, Cubic still got a six-year, $545 million contract extension.”

None of this bothered the city fathers of Vancouver, British Columbia, apparently. Their Cubic-built system “Compass” comes fully online this January. A large-scale Beta test, though, has already enraged citizens who realized that buying a fare through the traditional system, which will continue on buses, forced you to pay twice when transferring to trains, which only accept the new cards.

And so Cubic continues to thrive and grow, much to Wall Street’s delight. Wrote security analysts of Cubic’s military subsidiary, “2013 is likely to be a year of flattish revenue and lower earnings owing to tight defense budgets.” But “[t]here is no pure-play publicly traded fare-collection competitors,” so “[w]e see a solid growth story/existing backlog in Transportation,and believe that CUB’s efforts to expand its addressable market…. Scope for smart card penetration in existing U.S. transit systems is another growth lever.”

Let’s pause and reflect on what’s going on here.

“Privatization” isn’t new in Chicago’s fare-collection system; indeed the two components of the system being replaced, semi-smart preloaded “Chicago Cards” and dumb old magnetic-strip cards, were also devised under contract to Cubic. What we now see in Chicago, however, is an intensification of the logic of privatization. A publicly traded company succeeds—attracts more investors—only if it grows. The equity reports from the investment banks are telling in their ruthless focus on this fact: “flattish” grown is veritable death. It is not enough to “saturate” an old market. It is instead crucial to devise new ones—even if the old products don’t need fixing.

That is one of the reasons turning over public municipal services to private interests is so dangerous: the exploitative logic of planned obsolescence. The watchword: If it’s not broke—fix it! Or, as we’ve seen, don’t fix it. Just change it, even if what replaces it is worse.

What does it mean when a new product that fails and fails and fails, frustrating customers everywhere, continues to enjoy sales growth? It means that the customer isn’t actually the customer. The politicians are the customers. And they’re plainly getting something out of the deal whether Joe Public gets double-charged for a ride downtown on the No. 6 route or not. Consider: one of Cubic’s biggest institutional owners is Blackrock, the biggest investment fund in the world; and Blackrock’s CEO gave $25,000 to Rahm Emanuel’s mayoral campaign, then enjoyed a rare half-hour sit-down with him. Was transit fares one of the things they talked about? Wouldn’t it be nice to know.

Another danger is that private companies see the Internal Revenue System as a machine to repurpose our cash into their pockets. Reported Cubic to investors after the 2012 transportation bill was signed into law, “of significance to Cubic Transportation Systems in that all of our transit agency customers in the United States currently receive federal funding, and this bill will continue to provide them with the funding that they need to start new projects themselves as well as any prospective clients who may have needed funding.” Tellingly, you see no talk here of efficiency, or cost-savings, or market-enforced accountability, all those boons privatization is supposed to deliver to citizens. It’s just—here’s a new revenue stream. It’s just—time to call up “prospective clients.”

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There is no market-enforced accountability here. How could there be, when the contracts last ten years and are all-but-automatically renewed, due to (telling language!) “longstanding relationship[s]”? How could there be “competition” when the assets in question are natural monopolies? (What’s a competitor supposed to do, build their own subway routes?) And yet, maddeningly, the fallacy of the “efficient” private sector endures—helped along by those who ought to know better. Like when President Obama promised to bring healthcare.gov up to the standard of “private sector velocity and effectiveness.”

Somehow, failures in the public sector are always judged as systematic. The private sector thus exists to ride to the rescue—and their failures are only judged anomalies. A pretty nice arrangement for investors. The only people who suffer are the citizens. As Credit Suisse reports, “90%+ off Cubic’s cash on the balance sheet is held offshore.”

So that’s how it works: we shovel them boatloads of money. They stick us with substandard products. We fuss and holler, to no avail. Then they shelter the money they’ve just Hoovered from our pockets in offshore accounts. Maybe it’s time for activists in Chicago, Vancouver, Atlanta, Miami, Brisbane and London to get together, raise their collective voices and demand some of that money back.

Read next: Rick Perlstein on this phenomenon in Chicago

Chicago and the Municipal-Industrial Complex

CTA

The Chicago Transit Authority's fare payment system is undergoing an overhaul courtesy of Cubic Corporation, a leading defense contractor. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

This is part two of a series on the perils of privatization. Read the final installment here. Read the first one here.

On Tuesday I quoted Chicago anti-privatization activist Tom Tresser about why corporate America is falling in love with cities: “We have a massive global movement of capital which, because they’ve burned their own fucking houses down through their own greed, don’t have the gilt returns that they’re used to receiving…. So the new guaranteed annual returns that big business and big capital are looking for is our assets.”

Consider the very model of the modern major municipal contractor: Cubic. Trading on the NASDEQ with a market capitalization of almost a billion dollars under the adorable stock symbol CUB, Cubic earns over 99 percent of its revenues from government contracts, according to a Credit Suisse equity research report. When it’s not mismanaging urban fare-transit collection systems like Chicago’s Ventra, it does a once-pretty trade as “the leading pure-play provider of [the] defense training and mission support service areas which stand at the heart of modern military practices.” But, as we’ll see, defense isn’t offering the gilt-edged returns it once did. So look for Chicago’s very stupid smart cards to come soon to a city bus near you. Look, in other words, for Cubic to be picking your pocket, too.

Cubic was founded in 1951 in a San Diego storefront as a modest electronics company specializing in precision distance-measuring equipment. In 1966 it developed the first electronic stadium scoreboard. Then it gained worldwide recognition for the first satellite-based surveying system—expertise that turned out to be useful for getting its foot into the door where the real money was: defense. Tracking systems for military aircraft. Measurement apparatuses for missile ranges. “These core technologies,” Credit Suisse’s analysts explain, “led to the development of combat training instrument displays.” By 1973 it had created the “world’s first Top Gun ACMI system for the Marine Corps Air Station at Yuma, Arizona,” whatever that is; “Later, Cubic pioneered the world’s first turnkey ground combat/instrumentation system at Hohenfels, Germany. The same technologies were incorporated into Cubic’s broadcast data links and combat personnel recovery system, which were used successfully during Operation Desert Storm and in peacekeeping operations in Bosnia.”

Its “best known products” now, according to a JPMorgan report, “are laser engagement simulation kits used to conduct realistic war games…communications products, such as data links, power amplifiers, avionics systems, multi-band communications tracking device, and cross-domain hardware solutions for multi-level security requirements.” Their subsidiary NEK Special Programs Group, LLC “[o]ffers special training services in the areas of combat marksmanship, close quarter battle, sniper and survival training, tactical evasion driving, tactical life saving, military freefall and winter warfare, mountaineering operations, and medical training and services…. Cubic supports three of the four U.S combat training centers as a prime contractor (e.g. Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk), and serves as a subcontractor on the fourth.”

Which used to be a damned reliable customer base. But listen to the advice of the analysts at the House of Morgan: “The threat of sequestration continues to hang over defense segment funding, and we think Mission Support will be under pressure owing to DoD scrutiny of contractor sources.” They predict “flattish growth for these businesses.”

Good thing, then, that Cubic has a diversified product portfolio.

The San Diego company first got into the municipal fare-collection business when it bought a company called Western Data Products in 1971. Soon, it invented the world’s first plastic magnetically encoded tickets for Pennsylvania’s Port Authority. It is now the only publicly traded company in the business of providing RFID fare cards, like those used in Chicago's new system. And unlike with the defense stuff, when you’re part of the municipal-industrial complex, everything’s coming up roses.

A chart in the Credit Suisse report tells the story: “Smart Fare Card Penetration” was 9 percent of public transportation systems in 2007, 18 percent in 2009 and 22 percent in 2011. “The company is aggressively aiming to expand its addressable market from its current estimate of $2bn to $5bn,” says Credit Suisse. “The key driver in this segment is municipal transportation investment.” Investors are advised that “low smart card and growing magnetic reader penetration in the United States” is “a further positive in the long term.” Better yet, “aggregate passenger spending on public transportation shows little sensitivity to economic downturn and has increased every year.” Flat-lining defense spending? No worries. Cubic is covered. With guaranteed returns. Buy! Buy! Buy!

And so investors have bought, bought, bought. One of them, Blackrock, the largest investment fund in the world, owns 78,809 shares of CUB. Is it a coincidence that Blackrock CEO Larry Fink is a member of what Chicago Reader reporter Ben Joravsky calls Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s“ Millionaires Club”? I cannot firmly say. What I can say is that it makes perfect sense for the same sort of companies that once gave us the $500 hammer and the $750 toilet seat via “cost-plus” contracts that guaranteed gilt-edged returns, whether they did a good job or not, to keep mayors like Emanuel (who earned $18.5 million in two and a half years doing very little as an “investment banker”) on speed dial.

I wrote about the serial disasters of Chicago’s smart cards. But Cubic has the problem covered. The public relations problem, that is. Read one internal corporate communication: “The open payment system is likely at some point to be subject to criticism, so it’s important that all possible points of contention be considered and prepared for.” By making sure the problems are addressed? Not so much. “Spin,” a memo instead explains (emphasis added), “needs to be heavily positive.”

Speaking of spin, the Chicago Transit Authority’s head, Forest Claypool, has explained to the public that the horrific glitches have not yet cost the city anything because the CTA is holding back payment until the problems are fixed. He’s dissembling. As Credit Suisse’s analysts explain to investors (though I’ve never seen Chicago citizens get the same sort of straightforward explanation; telling, no?), “Most transport contracts are taken over ten years,” with almost half usually paid out up front: Vancouver paid Cubic 40 percent in advance for its smart-card system; Sydney, Australia, laid out 45 percent. Contrariwise, “for the Chicago project, revenue will be taken entirely over the ten-year span of the contract.” What seems to be happening here is that Cubic knew that Chicago’s rushed implementation, without a testing phase, would make for horrible botches and built that into the deal. They can’t be punished by getting money taken from them because there isn’t yet any money to take.

Once the kinks are worked out, though, and the problems are forgotten—that’s when the money rolls in, as if nothing untoward had ever happened. Indeed the public relations memo I quoted says as much, referencing the “need to spin the transition away from the [old] cards, and the fact that there are dates certain for that to happen.”

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Indeed, it looks like the perfection of Cubic’s evolving business model. Consider another revealing chart in Credit Suisse’s report on Cubic for investors, in the “Sales Growth Outlook” section. It shows “Backlog as % of Forward Two-Year Sales” over a four-year period. That’s a way of describing projected payments in a contract that are guaranteed down the line, but can’t yet be counted as revenue. The chart has three lines. Two of them, for Cubic’s Defense Systems and Mission Support divisions, turn worrisomely south. Like the man said, “The threat of sequestration continues to hang over defense segment funding, and we think Mission Support will be under pressure owing to DoD scrutiny of contractor sources.” But the Transportations Systems line, conversely, shoots promisingly skyward.

And once more Chicago’s City Hall gives away the store to Big Money, slicing its citizen on the cutting edge of the municipal privatization grift.

Read Next: Rick Perlstein exposes the many flaws in Chicago's new public transit payment system.

Chicago’s ‘Smart Card’ Debacle and Privatisation

CTA map

A Chicago Transit Authority route map of the Loop neighborhood (AP PhotoCharles Rex Arbogast)

 

This is part one of a series on the perils of privatization. Check back soon for the next installment.

Riding the buses in Chicago has been awfully fun this busy Christmas Season. Half the time, it’s been free.

This fall, you see, after a series of delays, the city brought online a new fare payment system called “Ventra” in which customers tap “smart cards” against electronic readers at bus entrances and train station turnstiles. Only it turns out these cards are not so smart. Half the time, tap after tap after tap, the damned things don’t work, and the bus driver just exasperatedly waves you through. Although it hasn’t been as much fun for the passengers who exited the bus through the front door and discovered that, if their purses or backpacks brushed too close to the reader, they were charged twice. Or for a guy named Al Stern who became a local celebrity after receiving an e-mail on Friday, September 6, informing him he’d be receiving a Ventra card in the mail soon to replace his “Chicago Card,” which was the previous prepayment system (which worked fine). Four minutes later he got the same e-mail, then four minutes after that, then four minutes again after that, and so on and so forth all the way until the next morning. Twenty-four days later he arrived home to a pile of 91 envelopes shoved through his mail slot, each holding a Ventra card; the next day, 176 more arrived, each one, he later discovered, canceling the last. “You have to call and activate it,” he told Crain’s Chicago Business, “but I’ve been afraid to do that.”

The goofs accelerated, like Lucille Ball working at the assembly line, or Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times. At the end of November federal workers discovered they could “pay” fares by scanning their employee IDs. (“Please be advised that intentional misuse of federal credentials is prohibited,” the local EPA office wrote employees.) Other customers reported being double-, triple- or even quadruple-billed. At the end of October the Chicago Tribune reported, “CTA employees are being ‘verbally attacked daily by angry riders’ who are blaming them for problems with the new transit-fare payment system”; their union called on the Chicago Transit Authority to scrap Ventra until the bugs were worked out. The city started charging the vendor for the proliferating lost revenue, while that vendor kept promising serial “software fixes” that never seemed to do anything but introduce novel problems. At the end of November came news that when people tapped their wallets, like they used to do without problem with their old Chicago Cards, random credit or debit cards were charged. Then, last week, the “CTA: Ventra Glitches Mostly Gone But Delays Remain.” Rush-hour outages began, and some buses stopping accepting fares altogether. That came two days after the headline, ""CTA: Ventra glitches mostly gone but delays remain."

It’s been our own municipal version of the Obamacare rollout—which means everyone should pay attention. For the root problem is exactly the same. Congressman Henry Waxman argued about glitches in the ACA, “if anybody’s head should roll, it should be the contractors who didn’t live up to their contractual responsibility.” But that’s only half right. Consider the sign Harry Truman used to keep on his Oval Office desk: “The buck stops here.” The problem is not just the profusion of private contractors who do the public’s business so poorly; it’s the fact that the public’s business is being so relentlessly privatized by the government executives in charge. Slowly, the perceived imperative to privatize has become the political tail that wags the policy dog. The results are before us.

Why, indeed, was this massive change in how Chicagoans pay for their bus and train fares initiated in the first place? “What was wrong with the old system? It worked fine,” ran the first comment on the Chicago Tribune’s article on all the abuse the poor bus drivers are facing from frustrated customers. Ran the second, “I have never even heard a compelling argument as to WHY we needed a new system to begin with.”

Well, my friends, here’s your compelling argument: under the old system, rich investors didn’t get a piece of the action. Under this one, they most decidedly do.

The contract to replace Chicago’s fare payment system was awarded to the publicly traded corporation Cubic in 2011 by the previous mayor, Richard M. Daley, for $454 million, and implemented with alacrity by the current mayor Rahm Emanuel. I’ll have much more to say about this company and its many dubious works in the next part of this series. For now, consider this. In a separate part of the project, Chicagoans are offered the following opportunity, as advertised on the back of their Ventra cards: “Go beyond transit. Call or go online to activate your Money Network® MasterCard® Prepaid Debit Account and use your Ventra Card for purchases, direct deposit, bill pay, and at ATMs.” This is how the City of Chicago intended to turn its millions of captive citizens over to the commercial banking industry: hoovering spare change from the pockets of Chicago’s marginal communities into corporate America’s overstuffed coffers.

Chicagoans who choose to turn bus cards into bank cards will be socked with hidden fees: $1.50 every time they withdraw cash using your bus-card-cum-bank-card from an ATM,$2.95 every time they add money using a personal credit card. Two dollars for every phone call with a service representative (or, oops, each “Operator Assisted Telephone Inquiry”). Two bucks for a paper copy of their account. An “account research fee” of $10 an hour.

At which point, learning about all that, they might cry, Help! Let me out of this “deal”! Well, that’ll cost them $6—a “balance refund fee.”

Now, turning your bus card into a bank card is optional—a program supposedly intended to help Chicago’s underbanked poor. I liked this observation, however, from a Tribune article last March: “It may be a tough sell, some experts said. Many low-income individuals are cash-centric in their spending habits because they are wise to the way of credit-card charges.” But not to fear, if you’re a Master of the Universe investing in one of the participating multinational banking concerns—Mastercard, First Data, or MetaBank—backing the play. Even though Chicago’s impoverished might not make ready marks for the scam, Chicagoans who don’t choose the banking option will suffer hidden charges. There is, for instance, a $7 “dormancy” fee if you don’t use your transit card for eighteen months, with another $5 charge tacked on for every dormant month after that.

Note that I said hidden fees. How hidden? Well, the only reasons Chicagoans learned about them was that the Chicago Tribune pored through over 1,000 pages of legal boilerplate (for more on how impossibly complex user contracts rip off consumers generally see my reporting here) and discovered them.

The reporters at the local CBS affiliate, meanwhile, reported that First Data got an “F” rating from the Better Business Bureau, with ninety-seven complaints filed against it over the past three years. MetaBank was recently ordered to pay $5.2 million by federal regulators for another public/private hustle, a now-discontinued program of issuing debit cards funded by tax refund loans at interest rates between 120 and 650 percent with a fee of $2.50 per $20 loaned.

The Trib noted, “Neither the CTA nor Cubic…nor MasterCard; nor MetaBank; nor First Data, which will issue the prepaid debit accounts, have disclosed the extra charges or how consumers can avoid them.” The city promised, though, that a “CTA public education campaign on all aspects of the Ventra card, including the fees, will start soon.” I must have missed it. Another fee which all transit users will have to bend over backward to dodge is the $5 it costs to get a transit card in the first place. That $5 is supposed to be refunded if you register your card online or by phone. I didn’t learn about that until I began researching this piece, though I was unable to make the site work on my decrepit old computer. Then they decided to waive the $5 fee, but only if you buy your card via phone or online, not at vending machines—which sort of compounds the insult against less-savvy customers or those with decrepit computers, doesn’t it?

Now, you might think poorer Chicagoans without even decrepit old computers should be able to hobble along paying for their fares like they always have, in cash. But single-ride tickets are going to be $3, instead of the normal $2.25—with what the CTA calls a seventy-five-cent “convenience fee” tacked on.

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Chicagoans, these are the business partners your city has chosen. And this is the man in charge of protecting you from them: Forest Claypool, president of the Chicago Transit Authority. Some protector. Claypool wrote that “the ‘convenience fee’ covers the cost of producing the disposable tickets and is ‘entirely avoidable to any and every customer’ so long as they purchase and register Ventra cards.’” But as I noted above, poor people tend to use cash because they don’t trust cards—reasonably enough. But the black-hearted bureaucrat “bristled at the characterization by many critics that cash-payers are being penalized…’There is no $3 cash fare,’ he said. ‘The $3 is if a person chooses a disposable, one-ride ticket. It has nothing to do with cash.’ ”

The editors of Crain’s Chicago Business, no Bolsheviks they, disagree with his blithe assessment. They say “the embedded fees could prey upon the least financially savvy among us, those for whom a $5 charge here and a $7 fee there add up to real money… They rely on people’s ignorance to take in money. And that’s not the kind of business our public servants ought to be in.”

So, so naïve, Crain’s Chicago Business. That’s precisely the business our public servants want to be in—“public” servants like Mayor Emanuel. As Chicago anti-privatization activist Tom Tresser explained to me last summer, “We have a massive global movement of capital which, because they’ve burned their own fucking houses down through their own greed, don’t have the gilt returns that they’re used to receiving…. So the new guaranteed annual returns that big business and big capital are looking for is our assets.”

Next time, I’ll focus on the particular big business behind the fare collection system in Chicago—and in Sydney, Vancouver and London, too. I guarantee it will be eye-opening.

Read Next: Greg Kauffman on a Senate plan to cut food stamps.

Thinking Like a Conservative (Part Six): ‘Government Dependency’

ACA demonstration

A Tea Party demonstrator speaks to a policeman during a rally against the Affordable Care Act at the Capitol building. (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

It’s one of the most frequent questions people ask me about conservatives: “When they say X, do they really mean it?” Does, for example, Rick Santorum really mean it when he says about Nelson Mandela, as he did in a recent interview with Bill O’Reilly on Fox News, “He was fighting against some great injustice, and I would make the argument that we have a great injustice going on right now in this country with an ever-increasing size of government that is taking over and increasing people’s lives—and Obamacare is front and center in that.” And I have to answer that largely, as astonishing as it may seem, they do.

Never mind that the size of government is not “ever-increasing” (see here). Empirical debunking cannot reach the deepest fear of the reactionary mind, which is that the state—that devouring leviathan—will soon swallow up all traces of human volition and dignity. The conclusion is based on conservative moral convictions that reason can’t shake.

Recently the outstanding political reporter Brian Beutler, now writing for Salon, wrote in a piece headlined “Right-Wing Extremists Face New Moral Conundrum” that as long as Healthcare.gov isn't working like it is supposed to, Republicans could “ignore the moral imperative they face” to help their constituents get healthcare. “A working site that can service a million people a day destroys that excuse. Some conservative groups have been craven and reckless enough to actively discourage people from enrolling in Affordable Care Act coverage.” I guarantee, though, that few or no conservative politicians are losing sleep over this. Instead, they judge themselves heroes. Waylaying their constituents’ ability to avail themselves of federally subsidized healthcare is not a “moral conundrum” for them. It is a deeply moral project. The immorality, as they see it, would be to allow people to become dependent on the state for their health.

I’ve been repeating myself, but clarity is very important here: know thine enemy. (OK, we’re liberals; we don’t have enemies. Know thine adversary.) Theirs is a morality entirely incommensurate with liberalism—but it is a morality.

One of its theorists was the Christian reconstructionist theologian Dr. Rousas J. Rushdoony. He wrote in his 1972 book The Messianic Character of American Education that since “the nuclear family is the basic unit of God’s covenant,” undermining the vaulting ambitions of the secular state was a godly duty. But you don’t have to be a Christian Reconstructionist or advocate, as Rushdoony did and his followers do, returning to biblical punishments like stoning to share the same intuition. Even mild-mannered Gerald Ford, usually not judged a frothing right-winger, used to love the nostrum “A government big enough to give everything to you is big enough to take everything away.”

Relying on government is slavery: it’s a consistent trope within modern conservatism. We see it today from the extremist doctors who refuse to “submit” to being reimbursed for their services by Medicaid, or even the government-tainted private insurance companies. They’re organized in a 4,000-member group called the American Association of Physicians and Surgeons. Senator Rand Paul is a member; its website features him asserting that if you believe in a “right to health care,” then “you believe in slavery.” And what kind of moral person believes in slavery?

Then there’s the old saw that the deal the Democrats supposedly offer African-Americans—you vote for us; we give you free stuff—returns them to “slavery.” The first use of that metaphor I’ve identified was by Ronald Reagan in 1968. A black reporter asked him why there were so few blacks at Republican events. The California governor politely but forcefully replied that it wasn’t Republicans who were racist but the supposedly liberal Democrats who “had betrayed them…. The Negro has has delivered himself to those who have no other intention than to create a federal plantation and ignore him.” The New York Times reported, “Reagan handled the situation so smoothly that some of the newsmen aboard his chartered 727 suggested, half-seriously, that the Reagan organization had set up the incident.”

What does this insight—that conservatives are immune to charges of “immorality” when it comes to denying citizens government services because they believe “hooking” people on government services is profoundly immoral—mean in terms of practical politics? For one thing, that Democrats will never get political credit from conservatives for downsizing or “reinventing” government. Just to speak of the state as something other than the source of all evil is enough to send chills down right-wing spines. Had JFK lived to give the speech he was scheduled to give at the Dallas Trade Mart on November 22, 1963, he intended to set conservatives straight: “At a time when the national debt is steadily being reduced in terms of its burden on our economy, they see that debt as the greatest single threat to our security. At a time when we are steadily reducing the number of Federal employees serving every thousand citizens, they fear those supposed hordes of civil servants far more than the actual hordes of opposing armies.” But I don’t think Texans were going to turn in their John Birch Society membership cards, the scales falling from their eyes, when they learned of the facts.

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And given the rank anti-empirical irrationalism that undergirds such convictions, it’s not like the White House can now avoid brickbats by somehow “submerging” progressive action by the state. Which, unfortunately, is what the Obama Administration has habitually tried to do. "Design of the Affordable Care Act,” as The Washington Post reported in a major investigation last month, “was hampered by the White House’s political sensitivity to Republican hatred of the law—sensitivity so intense that the president’s aides ordered that some work be slowed down or remain secret for fear of feeding the opposition. Inside the Department of Health and Human Services’ Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, the main agency responsible for the exchanges, there was no single administrator whose full-time job was to manage the project.”

But it’s not like their overabundance of caution earned a single Republican vote in Congress, or kept Republican attorney generals from suing to end its implementation, or four conservative Supreme Court justices from seeking to strike down the entire act (and a fifth, John Roberts, from ruling on its legality in away that set a precedent that might make future major government initiatives harder to constitutionally defend). It couldn’t have. Conservatives’ deepest moral convictions determined their reaction in advance. Anything liberals do to use the government to help people will be judged by genuine conservatives as an abomination; always have, always will. But genuine conservatives are in the American minority, as I wrote here last month. Isn’t it better to simply sin boldly and let our conservatives devils have the hindmost? Use the state to make people’s lives better. Do it without apology. That’s our moral imperative that should be beyond compromise.

In Part Five of this series, Rick Perlstein discusses conservatives' complicated relationship to the truth. 

Professors to Grad Students: Focus on Studies, Not Wages

Grad Student Unions

Demonstrators rallied to unionize graduate employees at Penn State University in September 2002. (AP Photo/Pat Little)

On November 20, hundreds of unionized graduate student instructors at Berkeley went on a 24-hour solidarity strike to protest the university’s intimidation tactics against university support staffers who’d gone on strike this past spring. An e-mail from a mathematics faculty member to his grad instructors explaining why he was crossing the picket line and why they should too went viral. For the prof, named Alexander Coward, also saw reason to protest: to dissent against the silly notion of solidarity in the first place.

He wrote: “Whatever the alleged injustices are that are being protested about tomorrow, it is clear that you are not responsible for those things, whatever they are, and I do not think you should be denied an education because of someone else’s fight that you are not responsible for.”

So what are they responsible for?

You need to optimize your life for learning.

You need to live and breath [sic] your education.

You need to be *obsessed* [sic] with your education.

Society is investing in you so that you can help solve the many challenges we are going to face in the coming decades, from profound technological challenges to helping people with the age old search for human happiness and meaning.

That is why I am not canceling class tomorrow. Your education is really really important, not just to you, but in a far broader and wider reaching way than I think any of you have yet to fully appreciate.

Society, and one’s education, apparently have nothing to do with issues of decent wages and working conditions and keeping higher education affordable and its institutions accountable. Good to know.

There is something about the very grown-up action of sacrifice for the sake of solidarity that turns some professors into patronizing asses. For Professor Coward also wrote, “All this may sound like speaking in platitudes. However it is a point worth making to all of you because you are so young. One of the nice things about being young is that your thinking can be very clear and your mind not so cluttered up with memories and experiences. This clarity can give you a lot of conviction, but it can also lead you astray because you might not yet appreciate just how complicated the world is.” According to his CV, Coward was born in 1981. That makes him a grizzled thirty-one or thirty-two years of age.

Coward, I’ve found, has plenty comrades in anti-comradeship who are old enough to know better. I’ll never forget the first time I heard the argument that, “even though I support unions I don’t support graduate students unions,” since graduate students were “apprentices,” not “workers.” It was over dinner with an Ivy League professor (not this one, another one) whose writings had taught me a great deal about what union solidarity was and why it mattered in the first place.

Then there’s this letter I was shown, sent by a political science professor at the University of Chicago, answering a public letter from students in his department about why they were working to organize a union. The professor’s response began this way: “First off, let me preface these remarks by saying that when I was in graduate school at Berkeley in the 1990s, I was very active in the graduate student unionization movement. I was shop steward for the political science department for several years and was very active in a three week campus wide teaching strike we held in the fall of 1992. It may also be worth mentioning that I come from a working class family (I was the first and only person in my family to go to college) and I grew up around a lot of issues of collective bargaining. So I’m highly sympathetic to issues of collective action.”

Just not your collective action. For he continued, “That said, I found your co-signed letter to be naive, unconvincing, and, quite frankly, kind of offensive. It is naive in that you seem to really think a union would not change relationships between graduate students and the faculty. I don’t know if either of you have ever been members of a union or worked in a unionized environment, but unions inevitably alter the relationships between union members and the people the interact with, be they management, clients, customers, or what not. The formalization of such relationships is, in fact, the central goal of a union. Your letter says ‘Our goal is simply to gain a voice in the decisions that affect our working conditions.’ Well, these decisions are largely made by the faculty. Thus, if you want a collectivized voice in these decisions, you will be unavoidably shaping your relationships to faculty members.”

God forbid!

He then claimed, “Let’s say each quarter of being a teaching intern requires about 200 hours of work (which is a high estimate), as graduate student ‘employees’ you are effectively making at least $300 an hour for the limited amount of time you are ‘working.’ What’s more egregious is the fact that most of the faculty I know do not think of interns [the University of Chicago’s term for teaching assistants] as employees but think of the internship as another educational experience.”

He also said the grad-student-union organizers’ arguments were “unconvincing because you do not specify any significant hardships regarding your ‘working’ conditions”—that word, working, was in quotes—and that he found the letter “off-putting in the tone of entitlement that rings through it. Every year there are hundreds of applicants for a very small number of slots to study here. You are very lucky to be here, just as I am very lucky to teach here. When you were admitted to the university, you were not hired. You were offered a spot as a student. The university owes you nothing beyond what it initially proposed and what you accepted. To call yourself an employee and complain about an absence of cost-of-living adjustments, health insurance, or the burdens of being a graduate student…sounds both presumptuous and petulant.”

Nothing off-putting, entitled, presumptuous or petulant about that.

It’s interesting to consider such arguments, which are common among faculty, in the context of a brilliant analysis of what this supposedly entitled life of the aspiring scholar actually looks like in the real world. It appeared during the Berkeley strike, and argues that the process of winning a tenure-track job, and then earning tenure, resembles nothing so much as climbing the greasy pole in a drug gang.

If you take into account the risk of being shot by rival gangs, ending up in jail or being beaten up by your own hierarchy, you might wonder why anybody would work for such a low wage and at such dreadful working conditions instead of seeking employment at McDonald’s. Yet, gangs have no real difficulty in recruiting new members. The reason for this is that the prospect of future wealth, rather than current income and working conditions, is the main driver for people to stay in the business: low-level drug sellers forgo current income for (uncertain) future wealth. Rank-and-file members are ready to face this risk to try to make it to the top, where life is good and money is flowing.

Likewise,

What you have is an increasing number of brilliant Ph.D. graduates arriving every year into the market hoping to secure a permanent position as a professor and enjoying freedom and high salaries, a bit like the rank-and-file drug dealer hoping to become a drug lord…. Because of the increasing inflow of potential outsiders ready to accept these kind of working conditions, this allows insiders to outsource a number of their tasks onto them, especially teaching, in a context where there are increasing pressures for research and publishing. The result is that the core is shrinking, the periphery is expanding, and the core is increasingly dependent on the periphery. In many countries, universities rely to an increasing extent on an ‘industrial reserve army’ of academics working on casual contracts because of this system of incentives.

And indeed this analysis notches perfectly with the stories I solicited for my series—here, here, and here—on the plight of young aspiring scholars. I still get responses, including one from a junior professor, rated one of the best in the history of Indian River State College by students. He was assigned six classes to teach. He asked the school’s human resources manager how to apply for health insurance. “I lost all my classes as the college avoids the Affordable Care Act in contempt of Congress.
 So I established the Adjunct Faculty Union at Indian River State College (AFU-IRSC). The college blocked my e-mail access to the Campus Coalition (Student) Government in violation of Section 7 of the Labor Management Relations Act. Adjuncts teach 75% of IRSC classes for $1600/16 weeks, about the lowest in the state. Admin treats adjuncts like we are invisible, refusing to talk to us or give us job security for doing a great job. Corrupt patronage has replaced merit in higher education.” He offered the story in memory of the now-famous adjunct professor of French Margaret Mary Vojtko, who died from inadequate medical care. Vojtko never earned more than $25,000 a year and received no health benefits despite her twenty-five years of loyal service to a Catholic University, Dusquesne, which argued that its “religious beliefs” should exempt it from federal labor laws.

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I also got responses from tenured professors. And their dominant tone was that same clueless arrogance we see above. One, a philosophy professor at a small liberal arts college in the Northeast, allowed that while things could be improved, and “I would like to see more tenure-track jobs and fewer adjuncts,” academia was still after all a meritocracy. He argued that “[f]riends like your autodidact”—he was referring to the example I gave of a recent PhD from one of the greatest universities in the world, who wrote brilliantly and insightfully, was a natural-born teacher and applied to a hundred jobs to no avail before realizing “tenured employment is almost unimaginable” because of his undeveloped suck-up skills—“will slip through the cracks if, despite actual excellence, they can’t muster what the academy considers evidence of excellence…. I think of a tenure-track job like an actor getting a job at a repertory company, or a baseball player being hired to play baseball full-time—there are just too many people lining up to do such jobs to give them to everyone.”

This was supposed to be a defense of the system.

Another, who teaches at one of the nation’s largest, richest and best public universities, complained that after renting a conveniently located house, paying for daycare and servicing his student debt, “groceries end up on the credit card by the 20th of every month.” As a result, “my credit rating is just above Charles Manson’s and my hair is falling out.”

A sad story, but not quite at the level of Margaret Vojtko’s, is it?

Rick Perlstein on the death of Margaret Mary Vojtko.

Correction: This post has been updated to indicate that the University of California strike lasted 24 hours, not three days. 

The Enduring Cult of the Vietnam ‘Missing in Action’

Vietnam POWs

32 U.S. Prisoners of War held by the North Vietnamese are released at Hanoi's Gia Lam Airfield on March 16, 1973. (AP Photo/Horst Faas)

Yesterday came news that my home state, Illinois, is preparing for its twenty-sixth annual ceremony this Saturday to honor the “66 Illinoisans listed as MIA or POW in Southeast Asia.” I absorbed this development the same week I had occasion to attend an internment at a military cemetery in Washington State, over which flew, alongside the banners of all of America’s military service branches, the familiar “POW/MIA” flag with the forlorn, hangdog prisoner silhouetted in the foreground and guard tower and barbed wire in the back. Given the scale of national problems we’re facing these days, this one hardly registers a dent. But it creeps me out all the same. And if you deplore jingoistic, racist propaganda, it should creep you out, too—so, this afternoon, let me unburden myself.

When downed American pilots were first taken prisoner in North Vietnam in 1964, US policy became pretty much to ignore them―part and parcel of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s determination to keep the costs of his increasingly futile military escalation in Southeast Asia from the public. Then, one day in the first spring of Richard Nixon’s presidency, Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird announced the existence of from 500 to 1,300 of what he termed “POW/MIA’s.” Those three letters—“MIA”—are familiar to us now. The term, however, was a new, Nixonian invention. It had used to be that downed fliers not confirmed as actual prisoners used to be classified not as “Missing in Action” but “Killed in Action/Body Unrecovered.” The new designation was a propaganda scam. It let the Pentagon and State Department and White House refer to these 1,300 (later “1,400”) as if they were, every one of them, actual prisoners, even though every one of them was almost certainly dead. “Hundreds of American wives, children, and parents continue to live in a tragic state of uncertainty caused by the lack of information concerning the fate of their loved ones,” Secretary Laird said. That was part of an attempt to manipulate international opinion to frame the North Vietnamese Communists (against whom, of course, America was prosecuting an illegal and undeclared air war against civilians) as uniquely cruel, even though fewer men were taken prisoner or went missing in Vietnam than in any previous American war. (From 1965 through 1969, they were tortured, at least if you believe American prisoners at Guantánamo Bay were tortured; the techniques were essentially the same.)

During the Johnson years, Sybil Stockdale, whose husband James (Ross Perot’s unfortunate running mate in 1992) was the highest-ranking and one of the earliest POWs, had organized a “League of Wives of American Prisoners of War” (later the National League of Families of Prisoners of War, then the League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia) which agitated for attention to the prisoners’ plight—against the Pentagon’s wishes. Under Nixon, the Pentagon co-opted it, sometimes inventing chapters outright, as useful to their propaganda barrage. Their families showed up on newsmagazines and TV; “POW bracelets,” invented by the future wingnut congressman “B-1 Bob” Dornan, then a local Limbaugh on Orange County radio, were unveiled in the spring of 1970 at an annual “Salute to the Military” ball in Los Angeles. (Governor Ronald Wilson Reagan presided, and Hollywood choreographer Leroy Prinz, who had worked with Reagan on the 1942 film Hollywood Canteen, choreographed a splendid pageant.) Bracelets soon sold at a rate of 10,000 a day; Sonny & Cher wore them on TV; some people, the The New York Times reported, believed them to “possess medicinal powers”―and not just the children who displayed them two, ten, a dozen to an arm. A Wimbledon champ said one cured his tennis elbow. Lee Trevino said his saved his golf game. Matchbooks, lapel pins, billboards, T-shirts and bumper stickers (POWs never have a nice day!) proliferated, fighter jets made thunderous football stadium fly-bys, full page ads blossomed in every newspaper urging Hanoi to have a heart and release the prisoners for the sake of the children.

Jonathan Schell, then of The New Yorker, observed that the American people were acting “as though the North Vietnamese had kidnapped…Americans and the United States had gone to war to retrieve them”—martyrs to an enemy so devious, as the Armed Forces Journal put it, that they denied hundreds of little boys and girls “a right to know if their fathers were dead or alive.” Ross Perot testified to Congress that when he visited North Vietnam to plead for their release they were incredulous at all this concern over “just 1,400 men.” Americans were plainly more morally sensitive than Communists. Though in fact our South Vietnamese allies held some 100,000 prisoners, many of them Buddhists monks guilty of nothing except pacifism, in a prison complex of American design that was so inhumane that Time’s correspondent described the captives as “grotesque sculptures of scarred flesh and gnarled limbs. They move like crabs, skittering across the floor on buttocks and palms.”

Already, the issue made for “a lunatic semiology,” as the historian Richard Slotkin later described it, where “sign and referent have scarcely any proportionate relation at all.” But it sure was heartily useful to the national security state. When America’s involvement in the war ended in January, 1973, Nixon told his secretary of defense that the military-orchestrated celebration of their return, dubbed “Operation Homecoming,” was "an invaluable opportunity to revise the history of this war.”

This is when the story got even nuttier—when the propaganda slipped the bounds intended by its authors, and became more like the brooms in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. The scholar H. Bruce Franklin of Rutgers tells the story with elegant economy in the book M.I.A., Or Mythmaking in America; Northwestern’s Michael Allen tells the story in more detail in Until the Last Man Comes Home: POWs, MIAs, and America’s Unending Vietnam War.

Operation Homecoming returned 587 American prisoners of war—but Nixon had by then settled on the number “1,600” as the number of Americans as “POW/MIA.” So where were the other 1,013? The brigadier general who supervised the repatriation announced that he “did not rule out the possibility that some Americans may still be held in Laos.” The secretary of defense promised, “We will not rest until all those still known captive are safe and until we have achieved the best possible accounting for those missing in action.” Holding the government to that pledge had now become the raison d’être of the League of Families—an organization now all the stronger, thanks to its recent history as a veritable White House front group. Bracelets continued to be sold, now with the names of MIA on them. Next came that flag—pow-mia: you are not forgotten—soon flying over VWF and American Legion posts across the fruited plain. And barely months after the Operation Homecoming propaganda triumph, Chicago MIA families declared that the administration was “abandoning” men “seen in photos coming out of Indochina or who have been reported alive by returning POWs.”

The issue came to define the diplomatic relationship between the United States and Vietnam, a subject of considerable exasperation for Vietnamese officials now being called on to “prove” they held no more prisoners. As one of them reasonably exclaimed, “We have not come this far to hold onto a handful of Americans.” A congressman from Milwaukee, Clem Zablocki, opened hearings that fall to debunk the spreading absurdity. He assured concerned families, referring to the testimony both of American returnees and the North Vietnamese, “There are no missing in action or prisoners of war in Southeast Asia at this time that they believe are alive.” Which only meant, to many POW-MIA families, that Congress was just part of the cover-up. “Why are you willing to believe the enemy on this subject when they do not tell the truth on any other subject?” the Corpus Christi chapter of the National League of Families soon raged in a letter to the Pentagon. “The fact is, you have no proof our men are dead.” (Her emphasis.)

But how could there be proof that men shot down over jungles or the Gulf of Tonkin or the South China Sea were “really” dead? And so the “issue” endured. Governor Ronald Reagan, in Singapore as a special presidential representative for a trade deal, said that if North Vietnam didn’t return the POWs and MIAs supposedly still being held, “bombing should be resumed.” He accused liberals in Congress seeking to ban further military action in Southeast Asia of taking away “the power to sway those monkeys over there to straighten up and follow through on the deal.”

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Here was the right-wing variant of the Watergate-induced dread about whether anyone in Washington could be trusted. It took on a life of its own. In 1975 a conservative Democratic congressman from Mississippi, Gillespie “Sonny” Montgomery, empaneled a House Select Committee on Missing Persons in Southeast Asia. He was initially sympathetic to the families’ claims of Communist perfidy. Then he led a delegation there which found their hosts warm, accommodating—and, once more, befuddled at what it was they were being asked to account for. (Just about every Vietnamese family had relatives who had disappeared in the war or whose remains could not be returned to the ancestral village—a sacred duty in Vietnamese culture.) Montgomery concluded that the existence of American prisoners in Vietnam was almost certainly a myth. As a CIA pilot captured there in 1965 testified at one of the subcommittee hearings, “If you take a walletful of money over there, you can buy all the information you want on POWs on the streets” but “when you try to run them down they fizzle out somewhere down the line.” They also turned up evidence that China had manufactured stories of MIA’s still in prison camps in order to keep the US from normalizing relations with their Asian rival. Reagan, however, remained adamant: “If there is to be any recognition,” he boomed on the campaign trail in the spring of 1976, “let it be discussed only after they have kept their pledge to give a full accounting of our men still listed as missing in action.”

Henceforth paying ritual obeisance, hat in hand, at meetings of the League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia became presidents’ annual ordeal. Read the section in Allen’s book about George H.W. Bush’s manhandling at the 1992 conclave. Read here about how Nixon’s long-lived propaganda goof delayed normalization of relations with Vietnam until 1995. And click here to see how this absurd cult still endures. The 9/11 Truthers don’t enjoy official government sanction. But if you happen to live in Illinois, you can roll with your very own “POW/MIA Illinois Remembers” license plate for your car. The “66 Illinoisans” apparently still imprisoned in Southeast Asia hardly deserve less.

Rick Perlstein questions whether John F. Kennedy would have ended the Vietnam War. 

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