Roger’s note: my holiday gift to you. Happy Thanksgiving!
NOVEMBER 26, 2014
by GILBERT MERCIER
The sad reality about the United States of America is that in a matter of a few hundreds years it managed to rewrite its own history into a mythological fantasy. The concepts of liberty, freedom and free enterprise in the “land of the free, home of the brave” are a mere spin. The US was founded and became prosperous based on two original sins: firstly, on the mass murder of Native Americans and theft of their land by European colonialists; secondly, on slavery. This grim reality is far removed from the fairytale version of a nation that views itself in its collective consciousness as a virtuous universal agent for good and progress. The most recent version of this mythology was expressed by Ronald Reagan when he said that “America is a shining city upon a hill whose beacon light guides freedom-loving people everywhere.”
In rewriting its own history about Thanksgiving, white America tells a Disney-like fairytale about the English pilgrims and their struggle to survive in a new and harsh environment. The pilgrims found help from the friendly and extremely generous Native-American tribe, the Wampanoag Indians, in 1621. Unfortunately for Native Americans, the European settlers’ gratitude was short-lived. By 1637, Massachusetts governor John Winthrop ordered the massacre of thousands of Pequot Indian men, women and children. This event marked the start of a Native-American genocide that would take slightly more than 200 years to complete, and of course to achieve its ultimate goal, which was to take the land from Native Americans and systematically plunder their resources. The genocide begun in 1637 marks the beginning of the conquest of the entire continent until most Native Americans were exterminated, a few were assimilated into white society, and the rest were put in reservations to dwindle and die.
When Christopher Columbus “discovered” the Americas in 1492, on his quest for gold and silver, the Native population, which he erroneously called Indians, numbered an estimated 15 million who lived north of current day Mexico. It was, by all considerations, a thriving civilization. Three hundred and fifty years later, the Native American population north of Mexico would be reduced to less than a million. This genocide was brought upon the Natives by systematic mass murder and also by disease, notably smallpox, spread by the European colonists.
Columbus and his successors proto-capitalist propensity for greed was foreign to Native Americans. They viewed the land as tribal collective ownership, not as a property that could be owned by individuals. “Columbus and his successors were not coming to an empty wilderness, but into a world which, in some places, was as densely populated as Europe, and where the culture was complex, where human relations were more egalitarian than in Europe, and where the relations between men, women, children and nature were more beautifully worked out than perhaps in any other places in the world.” wrote Howard Zinn in his masterful A People’s History of the United States.
In many ways, the US’ celebration of Thanksgiving is analogous to setting aside a day in Germany to celebrate the Holocaust. Thanksgiving is the American Holocaust. The original crimes of genocide and slavery are not limited to US early history but have found an extension in the policies of modern-day US. The systematic assault on other nations and cultures still goes on under various pretenses or outright lies. United States wars of empire are going on today more than ever before. These wars have left millions of people dead across the world in the course of American history, and they are still fought for the same reasons behind the Native American genocide and slavery: namely, to expand the wealth of the US elite.
Defenders of Thanksgiving will say that whatever the original murky meaning of the holiday, it has become a rare chance to spend time with family and show appreciation for what one has. For most Americans today, however, it is hard to be thankful. As matter of fact, unless you belong to the 2 percent who represent the US ruling class you should not be thankful at all. How can you be appreciative for what you have if you have lost your house to foreclosure, don’t have a job and can’t feed your family? How can you be appreciative if you are a homeless veteran? How can you be appreciative when you are poor or sick in a society without social justice? On this Thanksgiving day, rich celebrities and politicians will make a parody of what should be real charity by feeding countless poor and homeless. This will ease their conscience, at least for a while. Charity, however, should not be a substitute for social justice. Just to ruin some people’s appetites before they attack that golden turkey: keep in mind that today we are celebrating a genocide.
Most people hearing of a superior race with the right to rule over other races have no problem recognizing the face of evil. Most people. Those who identify with the superior race are often blinded by the glow of their delusions of superiority. They cozy up in the warmth of the glow.
Instead of a race, a nation can be regarded as superior, with the right to rule over other nations. There’s no significant difference between a superior Aryan race with a right to conquer the world, and an indispensable nation with a right to rule the world. That is to say, there is no significant difference between the ideology of Nazi Germany and present day USA.
Leading Americans spit the venom of exceptionality from their stars-and-striped tongues all the time.
“If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation.” Madeleine Albright
“The United States is exceptional, and will always be the one indispensable nation in world affairs.” Barack Obama
“One indispensable nation”! Logically that means that all the other nations are dispensable. Read between the lines and it says that you had better do what the indispensable nation demands or find out what dispensable means.
Empires have always, without exception, considered themselves superior to all other peoples and nations. Always. The NAE (North Atlantic Empire/USA) is no different. Unfortunately, those who identify themselves as members of the superior NAE fail to see the implications and consequences of this “indispensable” superiority. The future will judge them on the same scales as those used to weigh the good German citizens under Hitler’s regime. The good Americans, like the good Germans, like the good subjects of every empire that cast its formidable, but temporary, shadow upon the earth, will plead both innocents and ignorance when their world lies in shatters and contempt flows down upon them from former victims of their imperial hubris. Their pleas will serve to intensify the contempt. When leaders speak openly of being exceptional, indispensable and superior, all lack of resistance qualifies as an admission of complicity in the crimes of the leaders, particularly those who stipulate the conditions, “You’re either with us or against us.”
“Pebbles, dust and sand,
the remains of greatness in history’s hand.”
Roger’s note: Albert Woodfox, unfairly tried and convicted, has served nearly all of his 42 imprisoned years in solitary confinement, 23 hours a day, seven days a week, fifty two weeks a year in a closet sized cell with no windows and a bare minimum of human contact. During this time he has been subjected to multiple daily strip and cavity searches. What this amounts to is state vengeance for his Black Panther political organization and human rights activities. Multiply this by the thousands of American prisoners suffering the TORTURE of solitary confinement, and we see that we give the ISIS/ISIl and our allied Saudis a run for the money when it comes to outright barbarism.
After four decades in solitary confinement in Louisiana prisons for a murder he and his supporters maintain he did not commit, Angola 3 member Albert Woodfox got news this week his release might soon be possible. A federal appeals court issued a ruling Thursday (Nov. 20) in which they agreed Woodfox’s conviction for the 1972 murder of a prison guard should be vacated.
But on Friday (Nov. 21), Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell suggested in a statement that the state plans to persist in its decades-long effort to keep Woodfox imprisoned for a previously ordered life sentence.
“We respectfully disagree with the Court’s ruling, and remain committed to seeing that the trial jury’s judgment finding Albert Woodfox guilty of murdering Officer Brent Miller is upheld,” Caldwell said.
Woodfox and another prisoner in the early 1970s at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, Herman Wallace, who died last year days after his release from prison, were both implicated in Miller’s murder. Supporters of the Angola 3, though, say there was no physical evidence linking them to the crime. A bloody fingerprint at the scene matched neither of the men, according to International Coalition to Free the Angola 3. And supporters say the case’s only witness, a now-dead inmate, was promised favor in his case in exchange for his testimony against the men.
In 2008, Miller’s widow Leontine Verrett — a teenager at the time of her late husband’s murder — told The Los Angeles Times: “If I were on that jury, I don’t think I would have convicted them.”
Caldwell also said in his statement that “no court decision, including this one, has ever made a finding which disputes the fact that Albert Woodfox murdered Brent Miller at Angola in 1972. Those facts will always remain true.”
The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal’s unanimous decision this week to uphold a District Court judge’s ruling to overturn Woodfox’s conviction was the third time a court has ruled to do so. The case was re-tried in 1998, and a jury again found Woodfox guilty after testimony of the deceased witness was read in court. It’s the 1998 conviction that the three-judge panel this week agreed should be vacated on the basis that Woodfox didn’t receive a fair trial because of racial discrimination in the selection of the grand jury foreperson.
If the state moves on its commitment to try to uphold the conviction, it could be months or even years before the case is resolved.
Woodfox’s lawyer George Kendall said in an email, “It’s time for the case to come to an end.”
“This decision is fully consistent with decades of Supreme Court law,” he said of the ruling. “It is also consistent with our view that, because he is innocent, the only way for Louisiana to get that conviction was to violate the safeguards of a fair trial.”
At 67, Woodfox has spent nearly 43 years in prison for the conviction, “nearly all of it in solitary confinement, despite an overwhelmingly positive conduct record.”
His designation as a member of the Angola 3 stems from what Angola 3 supporters believe are wrongful convictions for prison murders in which Woodfox and two other prisoners were implicated for the purpose of silencing their activism. The International Coalition to Free the Angola 3 asserts the men essentially became political prisoners for organizing an official Black Panther Party chapter inside the prison, which led hunger strikes and other demonstrations opposing inhumane conditions inside the prison at Angola. Those conditions in the early 1970s at Angola included continued segregation, corruption and “systematic prison rape,” coalition manager Tory Pegram said.
Woodfox, who has moved facilities a number of times, remains incarcerated at David Wade Correctional Center in Homer. He is also seeking a restraining order against the state for daily strip and cavity searches by guards at the facility.
Robert King, the third member of the Angola 3 who was convicted of killing a fellow inmate, was exonerated and released from prison in 2001 after 29 years in solitary. King remains active in the campaign to release Woodfox from prison as well as ending the practice of solitary confinement, which is the subject of a civil suit involving the Angola 3.
King, who now lives in New Orleans and gives talks about his prison system experience, said despite the uncertainty of the action the state will take in response to the ruling, it’s an important, overdue step in a long process to secure Woodfox’s release.
“It’s been an uphill battle… but with this ruling, I think we have the wind at our back,” King said.
King said he was able to maintain his sanity, for the most part, while in solitary for all of those years by coming to understand — with the help of Wallace and Woodfox — that their struggle was “part of a bigger picture.” That bigger picture, he said, is painted by the country’s history with racism and injustice in the penal system.
“It kept me afloat — understanding why things were (as they were) with me and people who look like me,” King said.
King said he likes to think that Wallace, upon learning of the court’s recent ruling, would be smiling.
“We are just that much closer to Albert being released from prison,” King said. “One giant step toward that freedom.”
Woodfox, of New Orleans, was originally sentenced to prison at Angola on charges of armed robbery. That sentence would have expired decades ago, Pegram said. Woodfox was at Angola only a few years before he was implicated, along with Wallace, in Miller’s murder.
“At 67, Mr. Woodfox should be able to live of whatever life he has on this earth in peace,” Kendall, his attorney, said.
Roger’s note: who is writing the script for this horror movie, Joseph Goebbels or George Orwell? Who else could come up with such winners as “Operation Enduring Freedom” which has now morphed, thanks to War-Criminal-in-Chief Obama, into “Operation Resolute Support?” To describe aggressive warfare and the murder of innocent civilians? To maintain control over oil pipelines?
Why does that 1960s chant ring in my head: “Hey, Hey, LBJ, How many kids did you kill today?”
Last May 27, in an announcement in the White House Rose Garden, President Obama said:
“2014, therefore, is a pivotal year. Together with our allies and the Afghan government, we have agreed that this is the year we will conclude our combat mission in Afghanistan… America’s combat mission will be over by the end of this year. Starting next year, Afghans will be fully responsible for securing their country. American personnel will be in an advisory role. We will no longer patrol Afghan cities or towns, mountains or valleys. That is a task for the Afghan people.”
The president has now quietly authorized an expanded role for the U.S. military in Afghanistan.
The New York Timesreported last night that Obama’s decision is the result of “a lengthy and heated debate” between the promise Mr. Obama made to end the war in Afghanistan, versus the demands of the Pentagon.
The Pentagon won. An official told the Times that “the military pretty much got what it wanted.”
Obama has also given the war in Afghanistan a new name: Operation Resolute Support.
Obama’s secret decision will keep American troops on the ground and fighting for at least another year and the US will continue using F-16 fighter jets, Predator and Reaper drones, and B-1 bombers.
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Members of Intelligence Committee say White House is stalling release of torture report as high-level disagreement over what American people can know about abuses by CIA reaches boiling point; Transparency advocates tell lawmakers with access to report, ‘Just read it into the record.’
Members of the Senate Intelligence Committee (from left) Sens. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., listen to testimony in a Senate hearing room in this file photo. (Photo: AP)
“The public has to know about it. They don’t want the public to know about it.”
That’s what Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) told the Huffington Post on Thursday night regarding continued White House stalling over release of a report that catalogs the internal investigation of CIA torture during the Bush years. The comments followed a close-door meeting between Senate Democrats and Obama administration officials that took place just hours before the president gave a much-anticipated speech on another subject, immigration reform.
Rockefeller said the torture report is “being slow-walked to death” by the administration and told the HuffPost, “They’re doing everything they can not to release it.”
“[The report] makes a lot of people who did really bad things look really bad,” Rockefeller continued, “which is the only way not to repeat those mistakes in the future.”
Though the report has been completed for many months, the members of the Senate Intelligence committee have been fighting with the White House, which allowed CIA officials to review its findings, over the scope of redactions to the report’s summary before it’s made public. Though the full report is not expected to be released to publicly, human rights and transparency advocates have urged members to simply enter the report into the public record, something they have legal authority to do, as a way to inform the American people, and the world, of the full scope of the tactics used by U.S. government agents during the earlier years of the so-called ‘war on terror.’
During a closed-door meeting on Capitol Hill with Denis R. McDonough, the White House chief of staff, the senators said that the White House was siding with the C.I.A. and trying to thwart negotiations over the report’s release. The negotiations have dragged on for months because of a dispute over the C.I.A.’s demand that pseudonyms of agency officers be deleted from the report.
The C.I.A., supported by the White House, has argued that even without using the real names of the officers, their identities could still be revealed.
According to several people in attendance, the meeting was civil, but neither side gave ground, and it ended without resolution. The Senate Intelligence Committee spent five years working on the 6,000-page report, which is said to provide grim details about the torture of detainees in C.I.A. prisons during the Bush administration, and describe a persistent effort by C.I.A. officials to mislead the White House and Congress about the efficacy of its interrogation techniques. The committee voted this year to declassify the report’s executive summary, numbering several hundred pages, but the fight over redactions has delayed the release.
Earlier this week, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), also member of the committee, characterized the CIA’s arguments for leaving the report heavily redacted “ludicrous.” Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) said the version under discussion would leave all but 15 percent of the report blacked-out. “Try reading a novel with 15 percent of the words blacked out—” Heinrich said. “It can’t be done properly.”
Chair of the Intelligence Comittee Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) has let her frustrations be known but has not made clear what she intends to do in order to move the White House towards greater transparency on the report.
Feinstein declined to discuss the meeting with reporters Thursday. “I ain’t talkin’,” she said.
Rockefeller said the administration’s unwillingness to use aliases reflects a broader contempt for congressional oversight.
“The White House doesn’t want to release this. They don’t have to. And all we do is oversight, and they’ve never taken our oversight seriously,” he said. (He then added that he did allow for one exception, the Church Committee.) “Under Bush there was no oversight at all. Remember the phrase, ‘Congress has been briefed’? What that meant was that I and our chairman […] and two comparable people in the House had met with [former Vice President Dick] Cheney in his office for 45 minutes and given a little whirley birdie and a couple charts.”
“They had a specialty for being unforthcoming in our efforts at oversight,” he added, “and therefore there is no incentive for them to change their behavior.”
Meanwhile, a coalition of advocacy groups—including RootsAction, Demand Progress, Win Without War, CodePink, USAction, and others—argue the senators on the Intelligence Committe have another path if they truly want to give the public a look at the scope of the abuses perpetrated by the CIA. And, according to the groups, the senators have no obligation to wait for permission from the White House to act. As the coalition points out in a statement, “Members of Congress have an absolute right to free speech, and a member could enter the report into the Congressional Record in its entirety—just as the Pentagon Papers were by Senator Mike Gravel in 1971—without fear of prosecution.”
A online petition sponsored by the coalition, which they intend to deliver to members of the committee, reads in part:
The Senate Intelligence Committee’s “torture report” is expected to detail shocking abuse of prisoners at the hands of the CIA during the Bush administration, and even possible CIA lying to Congress.
But seven months after the Senate Intelligence Committee voted overwhelmingly to release the report to the American people, the White House is stonewalling Congress and demanding “redactions”—blacked-out sections and information—before making its contents public.
The group has put particular focus on outgoing Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) to step forward and release the report. Udall lost his re-election bid earlier this month and will be leaving the Senate in January. Signers of the petition say that if Udall, or other members in a position to do so, take the “heroic and courageous act” of releasing the full report, “we and countless others will support you.”
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Roger’s note: Here is the complete story behind the bizarre and Byzantine attempt by the United States government and its lapdog UK and Swedish governments to get their eager hands on a man who had the temerity to expose some of their atrocities. Sort of an international version of the Keystone Kops.
The siege of Knightsbridge is a farce. For two years, an exaggerated, costly police presence around the Ecuadorean embassy in London has served no purpose other than to flaunt the power of the state. Their quarry is an Australian charged with no crime, a refugee from gross injustice whose only security is the room given him by a brave South American country. His true crime is to have initiated a wave of truth-telling in an era of lies, cynicism and war.
The persecution of Julian Assange must end. Even the British government clearly believes it must end. On 28 October, the deputy foreign minister, Hugo Swire, told Parliament he would “actively welcome” the Swedish prosecutor in London and “we would do absolutely everything to facilitate that”. The tone was impatient.
The Swedish prosecutor, Marianne Ny, has refused to come to London to question Assange about allegations of sexual misconduct in Stockholm in 2010 – even though Swedish law allows for it and the procedure is routine for Sweden and the UK. The documentary evidence of a threat to Assange’s life and freedom from the United States – should he leave the embassy – is overwhelming. On May 14 this year, US court files revealed that a “multi subject investigation” against Assange was “active and ongoing”.
Ny has never properly explained why she will not come to London, just as the Swedish authorities have never explained why they refuse to give Assange a guarantee that they will not extradite him on to the US under a secret arrangement agreed between Stockholm and Washington. In December 2010, the Independent revealed that the two governments had discussed his onward extradition to the US before the European Arrest Warrant was issued.
Perhaps an explanation is that, contrary to its reputation as a liberal bastion, Sweden has drawn so close to Washington that it has allowed secret CIA “renditions” – including the illegal deportation of refugees. The rendition and subsequent torture of two Egyptian political refugees in 2001 was condemned by the UN Committee against Torture, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch; the complicity and duplicity of the Swedish state are documented in successful civil litigation and WikiLeaks cables. In the summer of 2010, Assange had been in Sweden to talk about WikiLeaks revelations of the war in Afghanistan – in which Sweden had forces under US command.
The Americans are pursuing Assange because WikiLeaks exposed their epic crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq: the wholesale killing of tens of thousands of civilians, which they covered up; and their contempt for sovereignty and international law, as demonstrated vividly in their leaked diplomatic cables.
For his part in disclosing how US soldiers murdered Afghan and Iraqi civilians, the heroic soldier Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning received a sentence of 35 years, having been held for more than a thousand days in conditions which, according to the UN Special Rapporteur, amounted to torture.
Few doubt that should the US get their hands on Assange, a similar fate awaits him. Threats of capture and assassination became the currency of the political extremes in the US following Vice-President Joe Biden’s preposterous slur that Assange was a “cyber-terrorist”. Anyone doubting the kind of US ruthlessness he can expect should remember the forcing down of the Bolivian president’s plane last year – wrongly believed to be carrying Edward Snowden.
According to documents released by Snowden, Assange is on a “Manhunt target list”. Washington’s bid to get him, say Australian diplomatic cables, is “unprecedented in scale and nature”. In Alexandria, Virginia, a secret grand jury has spent four years attempting to contrive a crime for which Assange can be prosecuted. This is not easy. The First Amendment to the US Constitution protects publishers, journalists and whistleblowers. As a presidential candidate in 2008, Barack Obama lauded whistleblowers as “part of a healthy democracy [and they] must be protected from reprisal”. Under President Obama, more whistleblowers have been prosecuted than under all other US presidents combined. Even before the verdict was announced in the trial of Chelsea Manning, Obama had pronounced the whisletblower guilty.
“Documents released by WikiLeaks since Assange moved to England,” wrote Al Burke, editor of the online Nordic News Network, an authority on the multiple twists and dangers facing Assange, “clearly indicate that Sweden has consistently submitted to pressure from the United States in matters relating to civil rights. There is every reason for concern that if Assange were to be taken into custody by Swedish authorities, he could be turned over to the United States without due consideration of his legal rights.”
There are signs that the Swedish public and legal community do not support prosecutor’s Marianne Ny’s intransigence. Once implacably hostile to Assange, the Swedish press has published headlines such as: “Go to London, for God’s sake.”
Why won’t she? More to the point, why won’t she allow the Swedish court access to hundreds of SMS messages that the police extracted from the phone of one of the two women involved in the misconduct allegations? Why won’t she hand them over to Assange’s Swedish lawyers? She says she is not legally required to do so until a formal charge is laid and she has questioned him. Then, why doesn’t she question him?
This week, the Swedish Court of Appeal will decide whether to order Ny to hand over the SMS messages; or the matter will go to the Supreme Court and the European Court of Justice. In high farce, Assange’s Swedish lawyers have been allowed only to “review” the SMS messages, which they had to memorise.
One of the women’s messages makes clear that she did not want any charges brought against Assange, “but the police were keen on getting a hold on him”. She was “shocked” when they arrested him because she only “wanted him to take [an HIV] test”. She “did not want to accuse JA of anything” and “it was the police who made up the charges”. (In a witness statement, she is quoted as saying that she had been “railroaded by police and others around her”.)
Neither woman claimed she had been raped. Indeed, both have denied they were raped and one of them has since tweeted, “I have not been raped.” That they were manipulated by police and their wishes ignored is evident – whatever their lawyers might say now. Certainly, they are victims of a saga worthy of Kafka.
For Assange, his only trial has been trial by media. On 20 August 2010, the Swedish police opened a “rape investigation” and immediately — and unlawfully — told the Stockholm tabloids that there was a warrant for Assange’s arrest for the “rape of two women”. This was the news that went round the world.
In Washington, a smiling US Defence Secretary Robert Gates told reporters that the arrest “sounds like good news to me”. Twitter accounts associated with the Pentagon described Assange as a “rapist” and a “fugitive”.
Less than 24 hours later, the Stockholm Chief Prosecutor, Eva Finne, took over the investigation. She wasted no time in cancelling the arrest warrant, saying, “I don’t believe there is any reason to suspect that he has committed rape.” Four days later, she dismissed the rape investigation altogether, saying, “There is no suspicion of any crime whatsoever.” The file was closed.
Enter Claes Borgstrom, a high profile politician in the Social Democratic Party then standing as a candidate in Sweden’s imminent general election. Within days of the chief prosecutor’s dismissal of the case, Borgstrom, a lawyer, announced to the media that he was representing the two women and had sought a different prosecutor in the city of Gothenberg. This was Marianne Ny, whom Borgstrom knew well. She, too, was involved with the Social Democrats.
On 30 August, Assange attended a police station in Stockholm voluntarily and answered all the questions put to him. He understood that was the end of the matter. Two days later, Ny announced she was re-opening the case. Borgstrom was asked by a Swedish reporter why the case was proceeding when it had already been dismissed, citing one of the women as saying she had not been raped. He replied, “Ah, but she is not a lawyer.” Assange’s Australian barrister, James Catlin, responded, “This is a laughing stock … it’s as if they make it up as they go along.”
On the day Marianne Ny re-activated the case, the head of Sweden’s military intelligence service (“MUST”) publicly denounced WikiLeaks in an article entitled “WikiLeaks [is] a threat to our soldiers.” Assange was warned that the Swedish intelligence service, SAP, had been told by its US counterparts that US-Sweden intelligence-sharing arrangements would be “cut off” if Sweden sheltered him.
For five weeks, Assange waited in Sweden for the new investigation to take its course. The Guardian was then on the brink of publishing the Iraq “War Logs”, based on WikiLeaks’ disclosures, which Assange was to oversee. His lawyer in Stockholm asked Ny if she had any objection to his leaving the country. She said he was free to leave.
Inexplicably, as soon as he left Sweden — at the height of media and public interest in the WikiLeaks disclosures — Ny issued a European Arrest Warrant and an Interpol “red alert” normally used for terrorists and dangerous criminals. Put out in five languages around the world, it ensured a media frenzy.
Assange attended a police station in London, was arrested and spent ten days in Wandsworth Prison, in solitary confinement. Released on £340,000 bail, he was electronically tagged, required to report to police daily and placed under virtual house arrest while his case began its long journey to the Supreme Court. He still had not been charged with any offence. His lawyers repeated his offer to be questioned by Ny in London, pointing out that she had given him permission to leave Sweden. They suggested a special facility at Scotland Yard used for that purpose. She refused.
Katrin Axelsson and Lisa Longstaff of Women Against Rape wrote: “The allegations against [Assange] are a smokescreen behind which a number of governments are trying to clamp down on WikiLeaks for having audaciously revealed to the public their secret planning of wars and occupations with their attendant rape, murder and destruction… The authorities care so little about violence against women that they manipulate rape allegations at will. [Assange] has made it clear he is available for questioning by the Swedish authorities, in Britain or via Skype. Why are they refusing this essential step in their investigation? What are they afraid of?”
This question remained unanswered as Ny deployed the European Arrest Warrant, a draconian product of the “war on terror” supposedly designed to catch terrorists and organized criminals. The EAW had abolished the obligation on a petitioning state to provide any evidence of a crime. More than a thousand EAWs are issued each month; only a few have anything to do with potential “terror” charges. Most are issued for trivial offences—such as overdue bank charges and fines. Many of those extradited face months in prison without charge. There have been a number of shocking miscarriages of justice, of which British judges have been highly critical.
The Assange case finally reached the UK Supreme Court in May 2012. In a judgement that upheld the EAW – whose rigid demands had left the courts almost no room for manoeuvre – the judges found that European prosecutors could issue extradition warrants in the UK without any judicial oversight, even though Parliament intended otherwise. They made clear that Parliament had been “misled” by the Blair government. The court was split, 5-2, and consequently found against Assange.
However, the Chief Justice, Lord Phillips, made one mistake. He applied the Vienna Convention on treaty interpretation, allowing for state practice to override the letter of the law. As Assange’s barrister, Dinah Rose QC, pointed out, this did not apply to the EAW.
The Supreme Court only recognised this crucial error when it dealt with another appeal against the EAW in November last year. The Assange decision had been wrong, but it was too late to go back.
Assange’s choice was stark: extradition to a country that had refused to say whether or not it would send him on to the US, or to seek what seemed his last opportunity for refuge and safety. Supported by most of Latin America, the courageous government of Ecuador granted him refugee status on the basis of documented evidence and legal advice that he faced the prospect of cruel and unusual punishment in the US; that this threat violated his basic human rights; and that his own government in Australia had abandoned him and colluded with Washington. The Labor government of prime minister Julia Gillard had even threatened to take away his passport.
Gareth Peirce, the renowned human rights lawyer who represents Assange in London, wrote to the then Australian foreign minister, Kevin Rudd: “Given the extent of the public discussion, frequently on the basis of entirely false assumptions… it is very hard to attempt to preserve for him any presumption of innocence. Mr. Assange has now hanging over him not one but two Damocles swords, of potential extradition to two different jurisdictions in turn for two different alleged crimes, neither of which are crimes in his own country, and that his personal safety has become at risk in circumstances that are highly politically charged.”
It was not until she contacted the Australian High Commission in London that Peirce received a response, which answered none of the pressing points she raised. In a meeting I attended with her, the Australian Consul-General, Ken Pascoe, made the astonishing claim that he knew “only what I read in the newspapers” about the details of the case.
Meanwhile, the prospect of a grotesque miscarriage of justice was drowned in a vituperative campaign against the WikiLeaks founder. Deeply personal, petty, vicious and inhuman attacks were aimed at a man not charged with any crime yet subjected to treatment not even meted out to a defendant facing extradition on a charge of murdering his wife. That the US threat to Assange was a threat to all journalists, to freedom of speech, was lost in the sordid and the ambitious.
Books were published, movie deals struck and media careers launched or kick-started on the back of WikiLeaks and an assumption that attacking Assange was fair game and he was too poor to sue. People have made money, often big money, while WikiLeaks has struggled to survive. The editor of the Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, called the WikiLeaks disclosures, which his newspaper published, “one of the greatest journalistic scoops of the last 30 years”. It became part of his marketing plan to raise the newspaper’s cover price.
With not a penny going to Assange or to WikiLeaks, a hyped Guardian book led to a lucrative Hollywood movie. The book’s authors, Luke Harding and David Leigh, gratuitously described Assange as a “damaged personality” and “callous”. They also revealed the secret password he had given the paper in confidence, which was designed to protect a digital file containing the US embassy cables. With Assange now trapped in the Ecuadorean embassy, Harding, standing among the police outside, gloated on his blog that “Scotland Yard may get the last laugh”.
The injustice meted out to Assange is one of the reasons Parliament will eventually vote on a reformed EAW. The draconian catch-all used against him could not happen now; charges would have to be brought and “questioning” would be insufficient grounds for extradition. “His case has been won lock, stock and barrel,” Gareth Peirce told me, “these changes in the law mean that the UK now recognises as correct everything that was argued in his case. Yet he does not benefit. And the genuineness of Ecuador’s offer of sanctuary is not questioned by the UK or Sweden.”
On 18 March 2008, a war on WikiLeaks and Julian Assange was foretold in a secret Pentagon document prepared by the “Cyber Counterintelligence Assessments Branch”. It described a detailed plan to destroy the feeling of “trust” which is WikiLeaks’ “centre of gravity”. This would be achieved with threats of “exposure [and] criminal prosecution”. Silencing and criminalising this rare source of independent journalism was the aim, smear the method. Hell hath no fury like great power scorned.
John Pilger is the author of Freedom Next Time. All his documentary films can be viewed free on his website http://www.johnpilger.com/
For important additional information, click on the following links:
Roger’s note: Solitary confinement is torture, is dehumanizing, is an abomination, is barbaric. Please sign the petition.
CCR (Center for Constitutional Rights) is challenging the constitutionality of long-term solitary confinement in its class-action suit Ashker v. Brown, filed on behalf of prisoners in California’s Pelican Bay prison. The suit is part of our longstanding work opposing all forms of torture, and it is also part of the movement here in the U.S. specifically to end the epidemic use of this particularly cruel form of punishment. As a part of that effort, CCR has partnered with Amnesty International and others in a call for the U.S. State Department to invite to UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez to carry out a fact-finding visit to US super-maximum security prisons, both state and federal. Please sign their petition here.
Roger’s note: One of the overwhelming disadvantages of obtaining information from only the U.S. corporate mass media is that what you are getting is the government’s justification for its actions shrouded in its own world view populated with half truths and outright lies. A sort of political ethno-centrism. This is true especially with respect to political hot spots like Venezuela, the Middle East, North Korea, etc. The picture of the Ukraine situation projected by western governments and mass media shows Russia as a blatant aggressor when the reality is provocative US/NATO expansionism in eastern Europe; that is a stark example of this phenomenon. This article provides an antidote.
Let me add that I am no fan of or apologist for Putin or Russian foreign policy. But fair is fair.
By Finian Cunningham, http://www.informationclearinghouse
“Press TV“- Has Russia reached the limit of its diplomatic tolerance of the US and its NATO allies? The announcement this week that Moscow is to begin deploying long-range bombers in the Gulf of Mexico – America’s own backyard – suggests so.
The move may seem like a reckless ratcheting up of tensions between the old Cold War rivals. The Tupolev Russian strategic bombers in question are nuclear-capable, and as expected the decision to patrol the Caribbean seas sparked a stern response from Washington, warning Moscow of risks.
But the first point to note is that Russia is not doing anything illegal. It has a legal right to fly its warplanes in any international airspace it chooses, as do all nations, to perform training maneuvers.
Even Washington officials have begrudgingly acknowledged Russia’s legal right to do so. The Christian Science Monitor quoted Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren as saying, “Russia has a right to fly in international airspace”.
However, we can be sure that the hawks in Washington will be fuming at what they see as Vladimir Putin’s “audacity” to order warplanes within striking distance of the US. For the de facto American War Party of Republicans and Democrats, the latest Russian move confirms their accusations that President Putin is trying to flex “Soviet-era muscles”. Or, as American NATO commander General Philip Breedlove put it, Russia “is messaging us that they are a great power”.
That’s typical arrogant mis-reading by Washington of the situation. This is not Putin trying to be provocative or flaunting expansionist ambitions. It is simply Russia giving a taste of American medicine back and in language that the arrogant warmongers in Washington will understand.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the US-led NATO military alliance has embarked on a relentless campaign of encircling Russia. In complete defiance of binding agreements, such as the 1997 Founding Act between NATO and Russia, the American military alliance has encroached on Russian borders with warplanes, warships, missiles and troops. It is Washington that is on an expansionist threatening drive, not Russia.
The destabilization earlier this year of former Soviet republic Ukraine to install an illegal, anti-Russian regime that is massacring the ethnic Russian population in the east of that country – in spite of a putative ceasefire – is seen by Moscow as a red line.
Washington has sent military aid to the regime in Kiev and is to step up its training of neo-Nazi brigades that have been involved in crimes against humanity on the people of Donetsk and Luhansk; simply because these people refuse to recognize the illegal regime-change operation in their country.
Latest reports this week say that the Kiev regime is preparing to escalate its military assault on the eastern regions in violation of a ceasefire it signed up to on September 5. Last week, its forces deliberately shelled a school in Donetsk city killing two teenage students. This was just the latest in a long list of such crimes committed by the Western-backed regime since it launched its offensive back in April.
That offensive followed days after CIA director John Brennan secretly visited Kiev and had behind-closed-door meetings with the regime’s leadership, including the so-called Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk. Yatsenyuk has referred to the Russian-speaking population in the eastern regions as “sub-humans” who need to be “cleansed”. After nearly seven months of Western-backed state terrorism by Kiev forces, more than 4,000 people have been killed and up to one million turned into refugees.
Yet in the face of this aggression, Washington and its NATO allies in Europe continually turn reality on its head and accuse Russia of fueling the conflict, slapping on punitive trade sanctions to boot.
With the servile help of the Western corporate news media, Washington, its European lackeys and their stooge regime in Kiev shamelessly invent stories of Russian military forces invading Ukraine. Images of army convoys are played over and over again without verifiable dates or locations. Based on NATO say-so and outrageous double think, Russia has allegedly violated Ukrainian sovereignty.
This week, Russian foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich again reiterated Moscow’s denial that it has sent troops or military equipment into eastern Ukraine. He said of the latest NATO claims: “Instead of giving the facts, all they have to present is unfounded accusations. It would be far better to ask the [Western] officials who make such statements in order to fan tensions and justify their actions.”
Russian ministry of defence spokesman Igor Konashenkov was even more blunt. He said: “We have already stopped paying attention to unfounded statements by NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe General Philip Breedlove about his ‘seeing’ Russian military columns that are allegedly invading Ukraine.”
It seems as if Moscow has finally got tired of dealing with idiotic Americans and their European puppets through normal diplomatic discourse. Putin may have met Obama briefly at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit last week and during the G20 gathering this weekend in Australia, but it has been reported that the Russian leader no longer takes phone calls from his counterpart in the White House – much to Obama’s chagrin.
When up against an irrational, arrogant bully, the only language he understands is in-your-face force.
Russia is right to put warplanes on patrol near US airspace. After all, American warplanes have been doing just the same towards Russia or years. Only the arrogant, exceptional nation thinks it has the right to do so without consequences. And no amount of diplomatic reasoning will ever prevail on such an arrogant monster.
Put it another way, to keep pandering with futile diplomacy and to not reciprocate the show of force with Washington and its minions would be the really reckless option. You don’t encourage a bully. Instead, you have to square up and push back.
Finian Cunningham (born 1963) has written extensively on international affairs, with articles published in several languages. He is a Master’s graduate in Agricultural Chemistry and worked as a scientific editor for the Royal Society of Chemistry, Cambridge, England, before pursuing a career in journalism. He is also a musician and songwriter. For nearly 20 years, he worked as an editor and writer in major news media organisations, including The Mirror, Irish Times and Independent.
Roger’s note: this article demonstrates the upsidedown Alice in Wonderland world we live in. It asks the question: “It’s a scenario that’s long confounded law enforcement: How do you crack down on extremism without creating more of it?” Dear Law Enforcement, here is the answer: stop invading Muslim countries and bombing their civilian populations. Then, in referring to those the Americans have put in prison, it notes with straight faced incredulity: “Many were guilty of attacking American soldiers.” Again, Dear Law Enforcement, when invading foreign countries, would it not be logical and expected for the citizens to attack the invading American soldiers?”
During the Iraq War, the U.S. locked up thousands of radicals in Camp Bucca. That gave the future leaders of Islamic State the opportunity to meet — and plan
DAVID FURST / AFP/GETTY IMAGES FILE PHOTO
At the height of the Iraq War, Camp Bucca had 24,000 inmates. Many of Islamic State’s leaders were incarcerated and likely met at the sprawling detention centre, located near the Kuwait-Iraq border. Photo taken May 19, 2008.
By:Terrence McCoyThe Washington Post,Published on Sun Nov 16 2014
WASHINGTON—In March 2009, in a windswept sliver of Iraq, a sense of uncertainty befell the southern town of Garma, home to one of the Iraq War’s most notorious prisons.
The sprawling detention centre called Camp Bucca, which had detained some of the Iraq War’s most radical jihadists, had just freed hundreds of inhabitants. Families rejoiced, anxiously awaiting their sons, brothers and fathers who had been lost to Bucca for years. But a local official fretted.
“These men weren’t planting flowers in a garden,” police chief Saad Abbas Mahmoud told The Washington Post’s Anthony Shadid, estimating 90 per cent of the freed prisoners would soon resume fighting. “They weren’t strolling down the street. This problem is both big and dangerous. And regrettably, the Iraqi government and the authorities don’t know how big the problem has become.”
Mahmoud’s assessment of Camp Bucca, which funnelled 100,000 detainees through its barracks and closed months later, would prove prescient. The camp now represents an opening chapter in the history of Islamic State — many of its leaders, including Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, were incarcerated and likely met there.
According to former prison commanders, analysts and soldiers, Camp Bucca provided a unique setting for both prisoner radicalization and inmate collaboration — and it was formative in the development today’s most potent jihadist force.
In all, nine members of the Islamic State’s top command did time at Bucca, according to the terrorist analyst organization Soufan Group. Baghdadi spent five years there; the leader’s No. 2, Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, as well as senior military leader Haji Bakr, now deceased, and the leader of foreign fighters, Abu Qasim, were also incarcerated at Bucca, Soufan said. Though it’s likely the men were extremists when they entered the detention centre, the group added, it’s certain they were when they left.
“Before their detention, Mr. al-Baghdadi and others were violent radicals, intent on attacking America,” wrote military veteran Andrew Thompson and academic Jeremi Suri in the New York Times last month. “Their time in prison deepened their extremism and gave them opportunities to broaden their following … The prisons became virtual terrorist universities: The hardened radicals were the professors, the other detainees were the students, and the prison authorities played the role of absent custodian.”
It’s a scenario that’s long confounded law enforcement: How do you crack down on extremism without creating more of it? From the radicalization of white supremacists in U.S. prisons to the United Kingdom’s disastrous bid in the 1970s to incarcerate Irish Republican Army members, the problem is nothing new: prisons are pools of explosive extremism awaiting a spark.
And at Camp Bucca, there was no shortage of sparks. As news of al-Baghdadi’s tenure at Bucca emerged, former prison commander James Skylar Gerrond remembered many of them. “Re: Baghdadi,” he wrote on Twitter in July, “Many of us at Camp Bucca were concerned that instead of just holding detainees, we had created a pressure cooker for extremism.” He worked at the prison between 2006 and 2007, when it was glutted with tens of thousands of radicals, including al-Baghdadi.
Many were guilty of attacking American soldiers. But many more were not — “simply being a ‘suspicious looking’ military-aged male in the vicinity of an attack was enough to land one behind bars,” according to the Times opinion piece.
Shadid reported as much in 2009, confirming that many viewed it “as an appalling miscarriage of justice where prisoners were not charged or permitted to see evidence against them (and) freed detainees may end up swelling the ranks of a subdued insurgency.”
That this subdued insurgency eventually caught fire isn’t much of a surprise. At the height of the Iraq surge in 2007, when the prison had 24,000 inmates, it seethed with extremism. Inhabitants were divided along sectarian lines to ameliorate tension, a military report said, and inmates settled their disputes with Islamic law. “Inside the wire at these compounds are Islamic extremists who will maim or kill fellow detainees for behaviour they consider against Islam,” the military report said.
“Sharia courts enforce a lot of rules inside the compounds,” one soldier quoted in the report said. “Anyone who takes part in behaviour which is seen as ‘Western’ is severely punished by the extremist elements of the compound … It’s quite appalling sometimes.”
Prison commanders such as Gerrond observed the growing extremism. “There was a huge amount of collective pressure exerted on detainees to become more radical in their beliefs,” he told Mother Jones. “ … Detainees turn(ed) to each other for support. If there were radical elements within this support network, there was always the potential that detainees would become more radical.”
But the unique setting at Bucca, which thrust together Saddam Hussein’s Baathist secularists and Islamic fundamentalists, set the stage for something perhaps worse: collaboration. At the prison, the two seemingly incongruous groups joined to form a union “more than a marriage of convenience,” Soufan reported.
Soufan found each group offered the other something it lacked. In the ex-Baathists, jihadists found organizational skills and military discipline. In the jihadists, ex-Baathists found purpose. “In Bucca, the math changed as ideologies adopted military and bureaucratic traits and as bureaucrats became violent extremists,” the Soufan report said.
From the ashes of what former inmates called an “Al Qaeda school,” rose the Islamic State. Indeed, when those inhabitants freed in 2009 returned to Baghdad, the Post reported, they spoke of two things: their conversion to radicalism — and revenge.
Roger’s note: If you are just getting over your Halloween frights, here is something that should really scare you. Only in a world that is controlled by politicians who follow the dictates of generals and CEOs (as opposed to “the people.” which is what democracy is supposed to be about) could such a danger to the very existence of the biosphere and humankind be put in jeopardy. Of course, when I refer to generals and CEOs you know that I mean the capitalist economic system that will doom us if we don’t do something about it. I hope this does not cause you to lose too much sleep.
JANUARY 17, 2014
BY ERIC SCHLOSSER
This month marks the fiftieth anniversary of Stanley Kubrick’s black comedy about nuclear weapons, “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” Released on January 29, 1964, the film caused a good deal of controversy. Its plot suggested that a mentally deranged American general could order a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, without consulting the President. One reviewer described the film as “dangerous … an evil thing about an evil thing.” Another compared it to Soviet propaganda. Although “Strangelove” was clearly a farce, with the comedian Peter Sellers playing three roles, it was criticized for being implausible. An expert at the Institute for Strategic Studies called the events in the film “impossible on a dozen counts.” A former Deputy Secretary of Defense dismissed the idea that someone could authorize the use of a nuclear weapon without the President’s approval: “Nothing, in fact, could be further from the truth.” (See a compendium of clips from the film.) When “Fail-Safe”—a Hollywood thriller with a similar plot, directed by Sidney Lumet—opened, later that year, it was criticized in much the same way. “The incidents in ‘Fail-Safe’ are deliberate lies!” General Curtis LeMay, the Air Force chief of staff, said. “Nothing like that could happen.” The first casualty of every war is the truth—and the Cold War was no exception to that dictum. Half a century after Kubrick’s mad general, Jack D. Ripper, launched a nuclear strike on the Soviets to defend the purity of “our precious bodily fluids” from Communist subversion, we now know that American officers did indeed have the ability to start a Third World War on their own. And despite the introduction of rigorous safeguards in the years since then, the risk of an accidental or unauthorized nuclear detonation hasn’t been completely eliminated.
The command and control of nuclear weapons has long been plagued by an “always/never” dilemma. The administrative and technological systems that are necessary to insure that nuclear weapons are always available for use in wartime may be quite different from those necessary to guarantee that such weapons can never be used, without proper authorization, in peacetime. During the nineteen-fifties and sixties, the “always” in American war planning was given far greater precedence than the “never.” Through two terms in office, beginning in 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower struggled with this dilemma. He wanted to retain Presidential control of nuclear weapons while defending America and its allies from attack. But, in a crisis, those two goals might prove contradictory, raising all sorts of difficult questions. What if Soviet bombers were en route to the United States but the President somehow couldn’t be reached? What if Soviet tanks were rolling into West Germany but a communications breakdown prevented NATO officers from contacting the White House? What if the President were killed during a surprise attack on Washington, D.C., along with the rest of the nation’s civilian leadership? Who would order a nuclear retaliation then?
With great reluctance, Eisenhower agreed to let American officers use their nuclear weapons, in an emergency, if there were no time or no means to contact the President. Air Force pilots were allowed to fire their nuclear anti-aircraft rockets to shoot down Soviet bombers heading toward the United States. And about half a dozen high-level American commanders were allowed to use far more powerful nuclear weapons, without contacting the White House first, when their forces were under attack and “the urgency of time and circumstances clearly does not permit a specific decision by the President, or other person empowered to act in his stead.” Eisenhower worried that providing that sort of authorization in advance could make it possible for someone to do “something foolish down the chain of command” and start an all-out nuclear war. But the alternative—allowing an attack on the United States to go unanswered or NATO forces to be overrun—seemed a lot worse. Aware that his decision might create public unease about who really controlled America’s nuclear arsenal, Eisenhower insisted that his delegation of Presidential authority be kept secret. At a meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he confessed to being “very fearful of having written papers on this matter.”
President John F. Kennedy was surprised to learn, just a few weeks after taking office, about this secret delegation of power. “A subordinate commander faced with a substantial military action,” Kennedy was told in a top-secret memo, “could start the thermonuclear holocaust on his own initiative if he could not reach you.” Kennedy and his national-security advisers were shocked not only by the wide latitude given to American officers but also by the loose custody of the roughly three thousand American nuclear weapons stored in Europe. Few of the weapons had locks on them. Anyone who got hold of them could detonate them. And there was little to prevent NATO officers from Turkey, Holland, Italy, Great Britain, and Germany from using them without the approval of the United States.
In December, 1960, fifteen members of Congress serving on the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy had toured NATO bases to investigate how American nuclear weapons were being deployed. They found that the weapons—some of them about a hundred times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima—were routinely guarded, transported, and handled by foreign military personnel. American control of the weapons was practically nonexistent. Harold Agnew, a Los Alamos physicist who accompanied the group, was especially concerned to see German pilots sitting in German planes that were decorated with Iron Crosses—and carrying American atomic bombs. Agnew, in his own words, “nearly wet his pants” when he realized that a lone American sentry with a rifle was all that prevented someone from taking off in one of those planes and bombing the Soviet Union.
* * *
The Kennedy Administration soon decided to put locking devices inside NATO’s nuclear weapons. The coded electromechanical switches, known as “permissive action links” (PALs), would be placed on the arming lines. The weapons would be inoperable without the proper code—and that code would be shared with NATO allies only when the White House was prepared to fight the Soviets. The American military didn’t like the idea of these coded switches, fearing that mechanical devices installed to improve weapon safety would diminish weapon reliability. A top-secret State Department memo summarized the view of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1961: “all is well with the atomic stockpile program and there is no need for any changes.”
After a crash program to develop the new control technology, during the mid-nineteen-sixties, permissive action links were finally placed inside most of the nuclear weapons deployed by NATO forces. But Kennedy’s directive applied only to the NATO arsenal. For years, the Air Force and the Navy blocked attempts to add coded switches to the weapons solely in their custody. During a national emergency, they argued, the consequences of not receiving the proper code from the White House might be disastrous. And locked weapons might play into the hands of Communist saboteurs. “The very existence of the lock capability,” a top Air Force general claimed, “would create a fail-disable potential for knowledgeable agents to ‘dud’ the entire Minuteman [missile] force.” The Joint Chiefs thought that strict military discipline was the best safeguard against an unauthorized nuclear strike. A two-man rule was instituted to make it more difficult for someone to use a nuclear weapon without permission. And a new screening program, the Human Reliability Program, was created to stop people with emotional, psychological, and substance-abuse problems from gaining access to nuclear weapons.
Despite public assurances that everything was fully under control, in the winter of 1964, while “Dr. Strangelove” was playing in theatres and being condemned as Soviet propaganda, there was nothing to prevent an American bomber crew or missile launch crew from using their weapons against the Soviets. Kubrick had researched the subject for years, consulted experts, and worked closely with a former R.A.F. pilot, Peter George, on the screenplay of the film. George’s novel about the risk of accidental nuclear war, “Red Alert,” was the source for most of “Strangelove” ’s plot. Unbeknownst to both Kubrick and George, a top official at the Department of Defense had already sent a copy of “Red Alert” to every member of the Pentagon’s Scientific Advisory Committee for Ballistic Missiles. At the Pentagon, the book was taken seriously as a cautionary tale about what might go wrong. Even Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara privately worried that an accident, a mistake, or a rogue American officer could start a nuclear war.
Coded switches to prevent the unauthorized use of nuclear weapons were finally added to the control systems of American missiles and bombers in the early nineteen-seventies. The Air Force was not pleased, and considered the new security measures to be an insult, a lack of confidence in its personnel. Although the Air Force now denies this claim, according to more than one source I contacted, the code necessary to launch a missile was set to be the same at every Minuteman site: 00000000.
* * *
The early permissive action links were rudimentary. Placed in NATO weapons during the nineteen-sixties and known as Category A PALs, the switches relied on a split four-digit code, with ten thousand possible combinations. If the United States went to war, two people would be necessary to unlock a nuclear weapon, each of them provided with half the code. Category A PALs were useful mainly to delay unauthorized use, to buy time after a weapon had been taken or to thwart an individual psychotic hoping to cause a large explosion. A skilled technician could open a stolen weapon and unlock it within a few hours. Today’s Category D PALs, installed in the Air Force’s hydrogen bombs, are more sophisticated. They require a six-digit code, with a million possible combinations, and have a limited-try feature that disables a weapon when the wrong code is repeatedly entered.
The Air Force’s land-based Minuteman III missiles and the Navy’s submarine-based Trident II missiles now require an eight-digit code—which is no longer 00000000—in order to be launched. The Minuteman crews receive the code via underground cables or an aboveground radio antenna. Sending the launch code to submarines deep underwater presents a greater challenge. Trident submarines contain two safes. One holds the keys necessary to launch a missile; the other holds the combination to the safe with the keys; and the combination to the safe holding the combination must be transmitted to the sub by very-low-frequency or extremely-low-frequency radio. In a pinch, if Washington, D.C., has been destroyed and the launch code doesn’t arrive, the sub’s crew can open the safes with a blowtorch.
The security measures now used to control America’s nuclear weapons are a vast improvement over those of 1964. But, like all human endeavors, they are inherently flawed. The Department of Defense’s Personnel Reliability Program is supposed to keep people with serious emotional or psychological issues away from nuclear weapons—and yet two of the nation’s top nuclear commanders were recently removed from their posts. Neither appears to be the sort of calm, stable person you want with a finger on the button. In fact, their misbehavior seems straight out of “Strangelove.”
Vice Admiral Tim Giardina, the second-highest-ranking officer at the U.S. Strategic Command—the organization responsible for all of America’s nuclear forces—-was investigated last summer for allegedly using counterfeit gambling chips at the Horseshoe Casino in Council Bluffs, Iowa. According to the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, “a significant monetary amount” of counterfeit chips was involved. Giardina was relieved of his command on October 3, 2013. A few days later, Major General Michael Carey, the Air Force commander in charge of America’s intercontinental ballistic missiles, was fired for conduct “unbecoming an officer and a gentleman.” According to a report by the Inspector General of the Air Force, Carey had consumed too much alcohol during an official trip to Russia, behaved rudely toward Russian officers, spent time with “suspect” young foreign women in Moscow, loudly discussed sensitive information in a public hotel lounge there, and drunkenly pleaded to get onstage and sing with a Beatles cover band at La Cantina, a Mexican restaurant near Red Square. Despite his requests, the band wouldn’t let Carey onstage to sing or to play the guitar.
While drinking beer in the executive lounge at Moscow’s Marriott Aurora during that visit, General Carey made an admission with serious public-policy implications. He off-handedly told a delegation of U.S. national-security officials that his missile-launch officers have the “worst morale in the Air Force.” Recent events suggest that may be true. In the spring of 2013, nineteen launch officers at Minot Air Force base in North Dakota were decertified for violating safety rules and poor discipline. In August, 2013, the entire missile wing at Malmstrom Air Force base in Montana failed its safety inspection. Last week, the Air Force revealed that thirty-four launch officers at Malmstrom had been decertified for cheating on proficiency exams—and that at least three launch officers are being investigated for illegal drug use. The findings of a report by the RAND Corporation, leaked to the A.P., were equally disturbing. The study found that the rates of spousal abuse and court martials among Air Force personnel with nuclear responsibilities are much higher than those among people with other jobs in the Air Force. “We don’t care if things go properly,” a launch officer told RAND. “We just don’t want to get in trouble.”
The most unlikely and absurd plot element in “Strangelove” is the existence of a Soviet “Doomsday Machine.” The device would trigger itself, automatically, if the Soviet Union were attacked with nuclear weapons. It was meant to be the ultimate deterrent, a threat to destroy the world in order to prevent an American nuclear strike. But the failure of the Soviets to tell the United States about the contraption defeats its purpose and, at the end of the film, inadvertently causes a nuclear Armageddon. “The whole point of the Doomsday Machine is lost,” Dr. Strangelove, the President’s science adviser, explains to the Soviet Ambassador, “if you keep it a secret!”
A decade after the release of “Strangelove,” the Soviet Union began work on the Perimeter system—-a network of sensors and computers that could allow junior military officials to launch missiles without oversight from the Soviet leadership. Perhaps nobody at the Kremlin had seen the film. Completed in 1985, the system was known as the Dead Hand. Once it was activated, Perimeter would order the launch of long-range missiles at the United States if it detected nuclear detonations on Soviet soil and Soviet leaders couldn’t be reached. Like the Doomsday Machine in “Strangelove,” Perimeter was kept secret from the United States; its existence was not revealed until years after the Cold War ended.
In retrospect, Kubrick’s black comedy provided a far more accurate description of the dangers inherent in nuclear command-and-control systems than the ones that the American people got from the White House, the Pentagon, and the mainstream media.
“This is absolute madness, Ambassador,” President Merkin Muffley says in the film, after being told about the Soviets’ automated retaliatory system. “Why should you build such a thing?” Fifty years later, that question remains unanswered, and “Strangelove” seems all the more brilliant, bleak, and terrifyingly on the mark.
You can read Eric Schlosser’s guide to the long-secret documents that help explain the risks America took with its nuclear arsenal, and watch and read his deconstruction of clips from “Dr. Strangelove” and from a little-seen film about permissive action links.
Eric Schlosser is the author of “Command and Control.”
I believe in magic, the magic of an incredible sunrise, the magic of a tender kiss. I do not believe in the magic of bending spoons with the mind. This is not magic, it is fraudulent pandering to human susceptibility, to mindless superstition. I believe that those who claim to have paranormal powers are not simply entertainers, but rather dangerous frauds. Despite the unbelievable advances in all branches of science and the equally unbelievable expansion of human knowledge, we live in an a “dark” age where unscrupulous agents of enormous economic power and interests take advantage of the credulous instincts of human beings in order to override scientific fact (evolution, climate change) in favor of superstition and “faith.” This often in the service of profit, war and environmental degradation.
I have faith. I have faith in those who have shown themselves reliable enough to merit belief. I do not have faith in fairy tales and myths that were created as metaphors but are taken as literal scientific truth by those who enjoy power through manipulation.
I have long followed the life and work of Henry Gordon, another Canadian magician (unfortunately not mentioned in this article) who dedicated his life to debunking the paranormal frauds. These men are heroes in my opinion.
A few minutes before 8 o’clock one Sunday evening last July, around 600 people crowded into the main conference hall of the South Point casino in Las Vegas. After taking their seats on red-velvet upholstered chairs, they chattered noisily as they awaited the start of the Million Dollar Challenge. When Fei Wang, a 32-year-old Chinese salesman, stepped onto the stage, they fell silent. Wang had a shaved head and steel-framed glasses. He wore a polo shirt, denim shorts and socks. He claimed to have a peculiar talent: from his right hand, he could transmit a mysterious force a distance of three feet, unhindered by wood, metal, plastic or cardboard. The energy, he said, could be felt by others as heat, pressure, magnetism or simply “an indescribable change.” Tonight, if he could demonstrate the existence of his ability under scientific test conditions, he stood to win $1 million.
The Million Dollar Challenge was the climax of the Amazing Meeting, or TAM, an annual weekend-long conference for skeptics that was created by a magician named the Amazing Randi in 2003. Randi, a slight, gnomish figure with a bald head and frothy white beard, was presiding from the front row, a cane topped with a polished silver skull between his legs. He drummed his fingers on the table in front of him. The Challenge organizers had spent weeks negotiating with Wang and fine-tuning the protocol for the evening’s test. A succession of nine blindfolded subjects would come onstage and place their hands in a cardboard box. From behind a curtain, Wang would transmit his energy into the box. If the subjects could successfully detect Wang’s energy on eight out of nine occasions, the trial would confirm Wang’s psychic power. “I think he’ll get four or five,” Randi told me. “That’s my bet.”
The Challenge began with the solemnity of a murder trial. A young woman in a short black dress stood at the edge of the stage, preparing to mark down the results on a chart mounted on an easel. The first subject, a heavyset blond woman in flip-flops, stepped up and placed her hands in the box. After two minutes, she was followed by a second woman who had a blue streak in her hair and, like the first, looked mildly nonplused by the proceedings. Each failed to detect the mystic force. “Which means, at this point, we are done,” the M.C. announced. With two failures in a row, it was impossible for Wang to succeed. The Million Dollar Challenge was already over.
Stepping out from behind the curtain, Wang stood center stage, wearing an expression of numb shock, like a toddler who has just dropped his ice cream in the sand. He was at a loss to explain what had gone wrong; his tests with a paranormal society in Boston had all succeeded. Nothing could convince him that he didn’t possess supernatural powers. “This energy is mysterious,” he told the audience. “It is not God.” He said he would be back in a year, to try again.
After Wang left the stage, Randi, who is 86, told me he was glad it was all over. For almost 60 years, he has been offering up a cash reward to anyone who could demonstrate scientific evidence of paranormal activity, and no one had ever received a single penny.
But he hates to see them lose, he said. “They’re always rationalizing,” Randi told me as we walked to dinner at the casino steakhouse. “There are always reasons prevailing why they can’t do it. They call it the resilience of the duped. It’s with intense regret that you watch them go down the tubes.”
The day before the challenge, Randi was wandering the halls of the casino, posing for snapshots and signing autographs. The convention began in 2003 in Fort Lauderdale, with 150 people in attendance, including staff. This year, it attracted more than 1,000 skeptics from as far away as South Africa and Japan. Often male and middle-aged, and frequently wearing ponytails or Tevas or novelty slogan T-shirts (product of evolution; stop making stupid people famous; atheist), they came to genuflect before their idol, drawn by both his legendary feats as an illusionist and his renown as an icon of global skepticism.
One fan, in his early 20s, with a thick mop of dark hair, introduced himself with, “So, I read that you spent 55 minutes in a block of ice.”
“A cinch,” Randi replied.
Ajay Appaden was 25 and had come from the Indian city Cochin. He was attending the conference for the second year with the help of a travel grant from the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF), which was established with donations from the Internet pioneer Rick Adams and Johnny Carson. In addition to offering grants, JREF holds the $1 million in bonds that back the challenge, and pays Randi’s annual $200,000 salary.
Raised as a Catholic, Appaden told me that he discovered Randi in 2010, when he watched the magician in an online TED talk discussing homeopathy. At the time Appaden was a student at a Christian college, struggling with his faith; two years later, during Randi’s first visit to India, he took a 13-hour bus ride across the country to see Randi in person. “It literally changed my life,” he told me, and explained that he now hopes to help teach skepticism in Indian schools.
The magician looked small and frail, lost in the folds of his striped dress shirt, leaning on his cane, but he mugged gamely for every acolyte. For many of his most zealous followers, the opportunity to meet Randi at TAM may be as close as they will ever come to a religious experience. “It’s an obligation, it’s a very heavy obligation,” he said. “I can’t stand one person being turned away and not being given the same attention that others have been given.”
A few days before the conference, I visited Randi at his home, in Plantation, Fla. The modest octagonal house was almost hidden from the street by a lush garden of finger palms, elephant ears and paperbark trees. As we sat upstairs, surrounded by some 4,000 books — arranged alphabetically by subject, from alchemy, astrology, Atlantis and the Bermuda Triangle to tarot, U.F.O.s and witchcraft — he said that he disliked being called a debunker. He prefers to describe himself as a scientific investigator. He elaborated: “Because if I were to start out saying, ‘This is not true, and I’m going to prove it’s not true,’ that means I’ve made up my mind in advance. So every project that comes to my attention, I say, ‘I just don’t know what I’m going to find out.’ That may end up — and usually it does end up — as a complete debunking. But I don’t set out to debunk it.”
Born Randall James Zwinge in 1928, Randi began performing as a teenager in the 1940s, touring with a carnival and working table to table in the nightclubs of his native Toronto. Billed as The Great Randall: Telepath, he had a mind-reading act, and also specialized in telling the future. In 1949 he made local headlines for a trick in which he appeared to predict the outcome of the World Series a week before it happened, writing the result down, sealing it an envelope and giving it to a lawyer who opened and read it to the press after the series concluded. But no matter how many times he assured his audiences that such stunts were a result of subterfuge and legerdemain, he found there were always believers. They came up to him in the street and asked him for stock tips; when he insisted that he was just a magician, they nodded — but winked and whispered that they knew he was truly psychic. Once he understood the power he had over his audience, and how easily he could exploit their belief in the supernatural to make money, it frightened him: “To have deceived people like that . . . that’s a terrible feeling,” he said.
He turned instead to escapology — as The Amazing Randi: The Man No Jail Can Hold — and feats of endurance. He broke a record for his 55-minute stint encased in ice, and bested the time his hero Houdini had spent trapped in a coffin on the bottom of the swimming pool at the Hotel Shelton in Manhattan. But Randi never forgot the believers, and how susceptible they were to exploitation by those who lacked his scruples. And so, as his reputation as a magician grew, he also began to campaign against spiritualists and psychics. In 1964, as a guest on a radio talk show, he offered $1,000 of his own money in a challenge to anyone who could show scientific evidence of supernatural powers. Soon afterward, he began broadcasting his own national radio show dedicated to discussion of the paranormal. He bought a small house in Rumson, N.J., and installed a sign outside that announced randi — charlatan. He lived there alone, with a pair of talking birds and a kinkajou named Sam. Although Randi had known he was gay since he was a teenager, he kept that to himself. “I had to conceal it, you know,” he told me. “They wouldn’t have had a known homosexual working in the radio station. This was a day when you had to keep it completely hidden.”
During the late ’60s and early ’70s, popular interest in the paranormal grew: There was a fascination with extrasensory perception and the Bermuda Triangle and best sellers like “Chariots of the Gods,” which claimed Earth’s ancient civilizations were visited by aliens. There were mystics, mind-readers and psychic surgeons, who were said to be able to extract tumors from their patients using only their bare hands — and without leaving a mark. Randi continued on his crusade. Few of his fellow illusionists were interested in exposing the way that conjuring tricks were used to dupe gullible audiences into believing in psychic abilities. “Everybody else just kind of rolled their eyes,” Penn Jillette, a good friend of Randi’s, told me. “’Why is Randi spending all this time doing this? We all know there is no ESP. It’s just stupid people believe it, and that’s fine.’ ”
Randi kept up his $1,000 challenge — and eventually increased it to $10,000 — but found few takers. Then in 1973, he met the nemesis who would define his struggle: Uri Geller, who had recently arrived in the United States from Israel. Geller was a charismatic 26-year-old former paratrooper who performed mind-reading feats similar to those with which Randi baffled audiences as a young mentalist. But Geller said that his powers were real and also claimed to have psychokinetic abilities: He could bend spoons, he said, using only his mind. His supposed gifts were studied by a pair of parapsychology researchers at Stanford Research Institute, who were persuaded that some of them, at least, were genuine. Randi told me that he met Geller soon afterward. “Very flamboyant,” he recalled venomously. “Very charming. Likable, beautiful, affectionate, genuine, forward-going, Handsome — everything!” His manner, Randi explained, was the key to the techniques employed by Geller and others like him. “That’s why they call them con men. Because they gain the confidence of the victim — and then they fool ‘em.”
Geller provided Randi with an archenemy in a show-business battle royale pitting science against faith, skepticism against belief. Their vendetta would endure for decades and bring them both international celebrity. Recognizing that the psychic’s paranormal feats were a result of conjuring tricks — directing attention elsewhere while he bent spoons using brute force, peeking through his fingers during mind-reading stunts — Randi helped Time magazine with an exposé of Geller. Soon afterward, when Geller was invited to appear on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” the producers approached Randi, who had been a frequent guest, to help them ensure that Geller could employ no tricks during his appearance. Randi gave Carson’s prop men advice on how to prepare for the taping, and the result was a legendary immolation, in which Geller offered up flustered excuses to his host as his abilities failed him again and again. “I sat there for 22 minutes, humiliated,” Geller told me, when I spoke to him in September. “I went back to my hotel, devastated. I was about to pack up the next day and go back to Tel Aviv. I thought, That’s it — I’m destroyed.” But to Geller’s astonishment, he was immediately booked on “The Merv Griffin Show.” He was on his way to becoming a paranormal superstar. “That Johnny Carson show made Uri Geller,” Geller said. To an enthusiastically trusting public, his failure only made his gifts seem more real: If he were performing magic tricks, they would surely work every time.
Randi decided Geller must be stopped. He approached Ray Hyman, a psychologist who had observed the tests of Geller’s ability at Stanford and thought them slipshod, and suggested they create an organization dedicated to combating pseudoscience. In 1976, together with Martin Gardner, a Scientific American columnist whose writing had helped hone Hyman’s and Randi’s skepticism, they formed the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. Csicop, as it became known, was funded by donations and by sales of a new magazine, which became The Skeptical Inquirer. Randi, Hyman and Gardner and the secular humanist philosopher Paul Kurtz took seats on the executive board, with Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan joining as founding members. Soon Randi was traveling across the globe, often “as the ambassador” of Csicop, Hyman told me recently, “the face of the skeptical movement all over the world.”
In his new role as a paranormal investigator, in books and on TV shows, Randi debunked everything from fairies to telekinesis. But he also stalked Geller around the chat-show circuit for years, denouncing him as a fraud and duplicating his feats by levering spoons and keys against the furniture while nobody was looking. In 1975, Randi published “The Magic of Uri Geller,” a sarcastic but exhaustive examination of the psychic’s techniques, in which he argued that any scientist investigating the paranormal should seek the advice of a conjurer before conducting serious research. The campaign helped make them both more famous than ever. Even today, Geller credits Randi with helping him become a psychic phenomenon — “My most influential and important publicist,” as Geller described him to me.
In 1989, Randi and Geller were booked to appear together on a TV special, “Exploring Psychic Powers, Live!” According to Randi, before the broadcast, Geller pulled him into his dressing room and offered to end the feud. “There’s no way that we are going to make peace until you level with your audiences,” Randi replied. “Until you say that you are a magician like the rest of us, and that you don’t have supernatural powers.” Geller refused. (Geller says he does not recall the incident.) Soon after, Geller brought the first of several libel actions against Csicop and Randi — who, among other things, had characterized him as a sociopath and suggested his psychic feats had been learned from the backs of cereal boxes. Geller’s suits in the United States were eventually dismissed. But the legal costs of fighting the cases were overwhelming, and Randi went through almost all of a MacArthur Foundation grant of $272,000 awarded to him in 1986 for his paranormal investigations. Finally, the struggle with Geller even cost Randi his place in Csicop; when Paul Kurtz told him it had become too expensive to keep going after such a litigious target, and demanded he stop discussing Geller in public, Randi resigned in fury.
Geller, who now lives in a large house beside the Thames River in England, says he long ago put the feud with Randi behind him. He claims to have used his show-business career as a cover for paranormal work on behalf of Mossad and the C.I.A., but he no longer calls himself a psychic. “I changed my title to ‘mystifier,’ ” he told me. “And I love it — because it means nothing.” But Randi’s contempt for him still burns brightly. “He knows he is deceiving these people — individuals, in most cases — and he doesn’t care what damage he does to them,” Randi said. “They depend on the paranormal after they have met Geller, and you cannot talk them out of it. And that has crippled them for life.”
Early one morning last summer, on a visit to Randi’s house in Florida, I drew up outside a few minutes later than we had agreed. Randi, wearing a canary yellow sweatshirt, was waiting at the front door, holding his watch in his hand. “You’re late!” he barked, and it was hard to tell if he was joking. We sat down in the living room to talk, and Randi spent half an hour laboriously adjusting his watch, winding the hands to display the correct date. “I am a little bit obsessed with having the right time,” he said. “I’ve always been very, very, big on knowing what time it is. That’s one of my connections with reality.”
Randi has never smoked, taken narcotics or got drunk. “Because that can easily just fuzz the edges of my rationality, fuzz the edges of my reasoning powers,” he once said. “And I want to be as aware as I possibly can. That may mean giving up a lot of fantasies that might be comforting in some ways, but I’m willing to give that up in order to live in an actually real world.”
That fixation on science and the rational life — and a corresponding desire to crusade for the truth — has a long history among magicians. John Nevil Maskelyne, who founded a dynasty of English conjurers in 1855 and became a prolific inventor, began his career by exposing fraudulent spiritualists and reproducing their tricks. Houdini turned to debunking mediums in his middle age as his career as an escapologist went into decline. He offered his own $10,000 reward to any spiritualist who could perform a “miracle” he could not duplicate himself. Martin Gardner, whose book “Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science” is a founding text of modern skepticism, was also fascinated by magic, and became well known for his books explaining how many conjuring and mind-reading tricks rely upon strict laws of probability and number theory. Penn and Teller have since followed Randi down the path of conjurers who have become debunkers.
Randi now sees himself, like Einstein and Richard Dawkins, in the tradition of scientific skeptics. “Science gives you a standard to work against,” he said. “Science, after all, is simply a logical, rational and careful examination of the facts that nature presents to us.”
Although many modern skeptics continue to hold religious beliefs, and see no contradiction in embracing critical thinking and faith in God, Randi is not one of them. “I have always been an atheist,” he told me. “I think that religion is a very damaging philosophy — because it’s such a retreat from reality.”
When I asked him why he believed other people needed religion, Randi was at his most caustic.
“They need it because they’re weak,” he said. “And they fall for authority. They choose to believe it because it’s easy.”
In the 1980s, Randi turned his talent for deception to debunking the supernatural. He set out to expose New Age channelers, mediums who — on shows and in profitable public appearances — purported to be possessed by ancient spirits. One, JZ Knight, a former cable TV saleswoman, claimed to be the terrestrial mouthpiece of Ramtha, a 35,000-year-old warrior from Atlantis who could predict the future.
To show how credulous audiences could be in the face of such claims, in 1987 Randi collaborated with the Australian version of “60 Minutes.” He invented Carlos, a 2,000-year-old entity who, his publicity material stated, had last appeared in the body of a 12-year-old boy in Venezuela in 1900 but had now returned to manifest himself through a young American artist named José Alvarez. He prepared to take Alvarez on a tour of Australia.
Alvarez, at the time a 25-year-old student at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, was in fact Randi’s boyfriend, and also his assistant. They met the year before in a Fort Lauderdale public library, where Alvarez was seeking visual references for a ceramics project. Randi, who had only recently relocated to Florida from New Jersey, struck up a conversation with him. They talked all afternoon and moved in together soon afterward.
Randi coached Alvarez carefully for his role as Carlos, rehearsing him through mock news conferences and TV appearances. He taught him how to squeeze a Ping-Pong ball in his armpit so that his pulse would appear to slow as he became “possessed” — “an old, old thing from Boy Scout camps,” Randi told me. Before the trip, Randi sent out press kits to Australian TV networks and newspapers, filled with reports charting the apparently sensational — but fictional — progress of Carlos across the United States.
Soon after they arrived in February 1988, Alvarez was booked on many of the country’s leading TV shows. Through an earpiece, Randi fed him answers to interview questions and the lines of doomsday prophecies. The climax of his tour was an appearance at the Sydney Opera House, after which the audience was invited to place orders for crystal artifacts, including the Tears of Carlos, priced at $500 each, and an Atlantis Crystal, offered at $14,000. Each proved popular — though Randi’s team never accepted any money for them.
When the hoax was revealed a few days later on “60 Minutes,” the Australian media was enraged at having been taken in; Randi countered that none of the journalists had bothered with even the most elementary fact-checking measures.
Afterward, Randi and Alvarez returned to Florida together, and Alvarez’s reputation as an artist blossomed. For the next 14 years, he toured the Carlos persona around the world as part of a performance piece, appearing onstage in Padua, Italy, and sitting for photographs on the Great Wall of China re-enacting the hoax. In 2002, the work Alvarez created from the Carlos episode was exhibited at the Whitney Biennial in New York.
Meanwhile, the establishment of the James Randi Educational Foundation in 1996 allowed Randi to continue his own pursuits with the foundation’s headquarters, a Spanish-style stucco building in Fort Lauderdale, as his base of operations. He created the Million Dollar Challenge and regularly wrote bulletins for the foundation’s website, where the message boards formed an online hub for skeptics worldwide. In recent years, he began making regular podcasts, and he also created his own YouTube channel to discuss everything from Nostradamus to cold fusion. In 2007, during his TED talk taking aim at quackery and fraud, Randi delighted his audience by gobbling an entire bottle of 32 Calms homeopathic sleeping tablets — which Randi speculated was certainly a fatal dose.
Disappointed by what he saw as the media’s indifference to the Million Dollar Challenge, that same year Randi revised the rules and announced a plan to take the challenge to high-profile psychics, including Sylvia Browne, John Edward and — once again — Uri Geller. None of them agreed to participate. He had more success in 2008, when he invited James McCormick, a British businessman, to take the challenge. McCormick had built equipment that could supposedly detect explosives from afar, which Randi recognized was simply a telescoping antenna swiveling on a plastic handle — a dowsing rod. Randi publicly offered the million-dollar prize to McCormick if he could prove that the device worked as claimed. McCormick, who was selling his product to security forces in the Middle East, never responded. But the British Police began an investigation, and last year McCormick was found guilty of fraud and sentenced to 10 years in prison, having sold at least $38 million worth of his miraculous device to the Iraqi government.
Recently, age and illness have begun to slow Randi down. In 2009, following chemotherapy for intestinal cancer, he presented the opening address at TAM from a wheelchair. Earlier this year, JREF’s Fort Lauderdale building was sold, and its reference library and collection of memorabilia were boxed up and relocated to Randi’s home. When I visited, many of the cartons remained unpacked; the portrait of Isaac Asimov that once hung above the fireplace in the JREF library was propped against a wall.
Randi was all but marooned in the house — he was forbidden to drive while he awaited cataract surgery — and Alvarez had been forced to surrender his driver’s license, after a series of events that began on Sept. 8, 2011. That morning there was a knock on the front door. When Randi opened it, a pair of federal agents stood before him. They asked to speak to Alvarez. Outside, Randi could see two unmarked S.U.V.s blocking the driveway and at least half a dozen agents surrounding the perimeter of the property. When Alvarez came downstairs from his room, the agents explained there was a problem. They wanted to talk to him about passport fraud. They cuffed him and took him out to the car. Randi was left alone in the house, holding business cards from State Department agents, who, Randi said, gave him instructions to wait 24 hours before calling them.
The agents took Alvarez directly to Broward County Jail, where he was photographed, issued a gray uniform and registered as FNU LNU: “first name unknown, last name unknown.” In an interview room at the jail, he told an agent everything: He had fled homophobic persecution in Venezuela and had come to the U.S. on a two-year student visa. He met Randi and knew he wanted to stay with him. But when his visa expired, there was no way to renew it. He said he was given the name and Social Security number of José Alvarez by a friend in a Fort Lauderdale nightclub, and used it to apply for a passport in 1987. Alvarez told the agent he was deeply sorry for the trouble he had caused the real Alvarez — who he believed was dead but turned out to be a teacher’s aide living in the Bronx. FNU LNU said his real name was Deyvi Orangel Peña Arteaga.
Charged with making a false statement in the application and use of a passport and aggravated identity theft, Peña faced a $250,000 fine, a sentence of up to 10 years in prison and deportation to Venezuela. After six weeks in jail, he was released on a $500,000 bond, and he subsequently agreed to plead guilty to a single charge of passport fraud. At a sentencing hearing in May 2012, the judge considered letters of support from Randi and Peña’s friends from the world of art, science and entertainment, including Richard Dawkins and Penn Jillette, as well as from members of charities to which Peña had given his time and work. The judge considered Peña’s long relationship with Randi, and Randi’s failing health. He gave him a lenient sentence: time served, six months’ house arrest and 150 hours’ community service.
But Peña still had to contend with the immigration authorities. After the sentencing hearing, he had been home for five days when Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents appeared at the door. “Say goodbye,” they told him. Peña assured Randi he would be back that afternoon. He was taken to the Krome detention center in Miami, and remained there while his lawyer tried to find a way of keeping him in the United States. After two months of incarceration, Peña was finally released from Krome on the evening of Aug. 2, 2012, to find that Randi had spent half the day waiting outside the front gate for him. The couple were married in a ceremony in Washington the following summer.
Today, Peña remains on probation and no longer holds any identity documents except a Venezuelan passport with his birth name. United States immigration authorities have agreed not to deport him for now, but he has no formal immigration status in the United States: were he to leave the country, he would be unable to return. Since his arrest, Peña has not entirely shrugged off his former persona. He signs his paintings with the name he has exhibited under for 20 years — but now followed by his true initials, D.O.P.A.
Sometimes when Randi forgets himself, he still refers to his partner as José. Yet exactly how much Randi — the master of deception and misdirection — knew about his partner’s duplicity, and how complicit he may have been in it, is unclear. When Randi first met him in the Fort Lauderdale public library, it seems certain that Peña would have introduced himself by his real name: A profile of Randi published in The Toronto Star the following year describes the magician’s young assistant, named David Peña, struggling through La Guardia Airport with Randi’s luggage. When they traveled to Australia together for the “60 Minutes” stunt, Randi may have been masterminding a deception one level deeper than he ever acknowledged: Deyvi, pretending to be José, masquerading as Carlos, the 2,000-year-old spirit from Caracas. What followed might be the longest-running hoax of The Amazing Randi’s career.
When I asked Randi how much he knew about Peña’s true identity before the federal agents came to his door, he demurred, citing legal concerns. “This is something I don’t think I’d like to get into detailed discussion about,” Randi said. “Simply because it could prejudice our status in some way.”
When he was still a young man appearing in Toronto nightclubs and pretending to predict the future, Randall Zwinge created what he hoped would be his greatest trick. Each night before he went to bed, he wrote the date on the back of a business card along with the words “I, Randall Zwinge, will die today.” Then he signed it and placed it in his wallet. That way, if he were knocked down in the street or killed by a freak accident, whoever went through his effects would discover the most shocking prophecy he ever made. Zwinge kept at it for years. Each night, he tore up one card and wrote out a new one for the next day. But nothing fatal befell him; in the end, having wasted hundreds of business cards, he gave up in frustration. “I never got lucky,” he told me.
Since then, Randi has had several brushes with death. But nothing has shaken his steadfast rationalism: neither the heart attack he suffered in 2006, nor the cancer that followed. Nor, for that matter, did a conversation he had with Martin Gardner a few years before Gardner’s death in 2010, when his friend confessed to having chosen to believe in the possibility of an afterlife. “That really surprised me, because he was the rationalist supreme,” Randi recalled. “He said: ‘I don’t have any evidence for it, you have all the arguments on your side. But it brings me comfort.’ ”
Randi told me that he now feels mild trepidation each time he goes to sleep at night, and pleasant surprise that he wakes up in the morning. But he insists he does not need the sort of reassurance that Gardner sought in his own last days. “I wouldn’t have any comfort from it — because I wouldn’t believe in it,” he said. “Oh, no, I have no fear of my demise whatsoever. I really feel that sincerely.”
Most mornings, Randi is already awake at 7 o’clock, when Peña comes in to check on him; sometimes he’s up at 6. “I’ve got a lot of work to do, still,” he told me, “and I’ve got to make use of my viable time.” He is currently completing his 11th book, “A Magician in the Laboratory,” and spends several hours a day responding to emails from his desk in the chaotic-looking office he maintains upstairs. He Skypes with friends in China or Australia once a week. Peña likes to cook, and paints downstairs, beside the framed lithograph recalling the triumphs of the Man No Jail Can Hold. The couple have spent much of the last year traveling to film festivals and screenings across the United States, helping to promote a new documentary about Randi’s life, “An Honest Liar,” which will be released in February. Randi has been surprised by the response. “Standing ovations, the whole thing,” he told me.
In July last year, Randi came closer than ever to the end. He was hospitalized with aneurysms in his legs and needed surgery. Before the procedure began, the surgeon showed Peña scans of Randi’s circulatory system. “Very challenging, a very difficult situation,” the surgeon told him. “But he lived a good life.” The operation was supposed to take two hours, but it stretched to six and a half.
When Randi began to come to, heavily dosed with painkillers, he looked about him in confusion. There were nurses speaking in hushed voices. He began hallucinating. He was convinced that he was behind the curtain before a show and that the whispering he could hear was the audience coming in. The theater was full; he had to get onstage. He tried to look at his watch, but he found he didn’t have it on. He began to panic. When the hallucinations became intensely visual, Peña brought a pen and paper to the bedside. It could prove an important exercise in skeptical inquiry to record what Randi saw as he emerged from a state so close to death, one in which so many people sincerely believed they had glimpsed the other side. Randi scribbled away; his observations, Peña thought, might eventually make a great essay. Later, when the opiates and the anaesthetic wore off, Randi looked at the notes he had written.